The Disney people are back to what they’re good at –great, gorgeous visuals.
They’re also back to what they’re iffy at – compelling stories.
Both are true in “Raya and the Last Dragon” (shown here), which starts its trek through the new media landscape.
The original plan was for this animated film to reach theaters in November. That was switched to a mixed approach: Beginning Friday (March 5), it’s in movie theaters and is available for Disney+ viewers who pay a premium ($29.95) to have it permanently. It will continue there for two months, disappear for a month, then be available to all Disney+ people on June 4.
Whenever you see it, you may be struck by the same things that shaped Disney’s recent live-action “Mulan” – great visual sweep and splendor, not-great story and script.
In olden days, we didn’t expect anything from the script for an animated film. Then Pixar arrived.
Its first movie – “Toy Story” (1995) – drew an Academy Award nomination for its script. So have seven other Pixar films, most recently the brilliant “Inside Out” (2015).
Now Pixar is part of Disney, but its script touch doesn’t seem to be contagious.
As “Raya” starts, a gem is the key to prosperity for all the kingdoms. Raya’s dad holds it … guarding it with so little vigor that you’d think he was in charge of Capitol security on Jan. 6.
He invites all the other kingdoms to his palace, then has a two-man force (actually, one man and one young girl) for security. He seems terribly surprised when things go wrong.
After that, we flash forward to Raya’s mission: Find the last dragon and re-assemble the gem.
Like any road movie, that has a stop-and-start nature. Still, it’s salvaged by some great characters.
There’s Raya’s companion – a lovable snail who can pull his head in and become a giant wheel, whisking her along. And a “con baby,” looking really cute while stealing things. And the dragon itself: Cleverly written and played (by Awkwafina) and drawn, she resists every notion of a fire-breather.
To Disney’s credit, this film continues the strong-woman trend. It may be the first film in which the prime hero, the prime villain and the dragon are all female.
Other points are more iffy. “Raya” preaches to us a lot; it talks about the importance of trusting …while presenting people who should never, ever be trusted.
It has plenty of flaws … most fading from our minds as we savor the flowing beauty onscreen,