DirectorDon Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Release Date(s)2021 (May 18, 2021)
Studio(s)Walt Disney Animation Studios (Walt Disney Studios/Buena Vista Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
Long ago, in the land of Kumandra, human beings lived in peace and prosperity with dragons. But when evil spirits called the Druun appeared to ravage the kingdom, the dragons combined all of their magic into a single gem which the last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians), used to defeat them. The dragons were turned to stone in this effort, while Sisu disappeared, and the existence of the gem eventually divided Kumandra into squabbling factions known as Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail. Centuries on, when the kindly Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim, Lost) invites the leaders of each tribe to Heart—where the gem has long been kept—he tells his young daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) that he hopes to unite them all in peace. But Namarri (Gemma Chan, Humans), the daughter of the chieftess of Fang (Sandra Oh, Grey’s Anatomy), betrays her new friendship with Raya to steal the gem, causing it to shatter. As each tribe takes its piece and flees, the Druun suddenly return, turning Chief Benja and countless others into stone. Six years later, a grown-up Raya and her companion Tuk Tuk search far and wide for clues that might lead them to Sisu, who is their only hope for saving the world.
With an original story and stunning production design drawn from over a dozen Southeast Asian cultures, Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon gets off to a slow start due to the exposition needed to establish its backstory. But when the film introduces its characters—and the terrific vocal talent here begins to establish itself—the story quickly picks up steam. Unfortunately, that momentum grinds to a halt again briefly when Sisu and Boun (the latter voiced by Izaac Wang) appear, because their dialogue is presented in a contemporary, improvisational style that feels completely out of place with the rest of the film. Clearly, the producers were trying to capture a bit of that old ‘Robin Williams in Aladdin’ magic, but that approach is very hit-or-miss. The good news is that dialogue soon settles down and the story once more becomes more engrossing, revealing genuine warmth and a heart that’s hard to resist. Alan Tudyk (Star Wars: Rogue One) and Benedict Wong (Dr. Strange) round out the list of strong performances, while James Newton Howard and Filipina singer KZ Tandingan provide a lush soundtrack for the visuals.
There’s a great deal of confusion online these days about what resolution CG-animated films are typically produced in. Some of this comes from IMDB, which usually lists ‘4K Digital Intermediate’ for such films, but that’s a bit misleading. While it’s true that most films are finalized as 4K DIs these days, feature-length CG animated films are typically rendered in 2K only. At Disney and Pixar for example, the animation is rendered in 2K, and then artificial intelligence and machine learning are employed to upsample the image to 4K. When Pixar’s Coco was released for example (see our review here), I confirmed as much with director Lee Unkrich, who told me that the studio had tested doing native 4K renders, but found that it significantly increased both the cost of production and the rendering time required, without yielding appreciable on-screen results. (Pixar Animation Studios’ Vaibhav Vavilala and Mark Meyer recently published a technical paper on the process they use to upscale their animation, which is known as “Deep Learned Super Resolution”—it’s well worth reading here).
In the case of Raya and the Last Dragon, the film was rendered at 2K, upsampled to 4K at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and then graded for high dynamic range (as is usual for Disney, only HDR10 is available on this disc, though Dolby Vision can be found on the Digital 4K offerings). Fine detail and texturing here are generally good, and a bit better than the Blu-ray image, but fall short of standout 4K presentations. The overall palette is absolutely lovely, exhibiting pleasing vibrance and nuance thanks to the expanded 10-bit color space. Still, while image highlights are moderately bold, the shadow detail is a bit lacking. This is definitely a restrained HDR grade, and one that would have benefited from Dolby Vision on the actual disc.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is included in English Dolby Atmos. The soundstage is spacious and enveloping, with excellent clarity, smooth movement, and pleasing use of the surround and height channels for ambience and immersion. Staging is lively, with good dialogue placement across the front, and the overall tonal quality is robust. Low end is generally good too, but definitely benefits from increased volume. This isn’t a demo-quality mix, but it still represents the sonic experience of Raya well. Additional audio options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio and French, Spanish, and Japanese 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus, with optional subtitles in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Japanese.
Disney’s 4K disc has no actual special features on it, but the package also includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray. That disc adds the following:
- Us Again (HD – 6:49)
- An Introduction to Us Again (HD – 1:21)
- Taste of Raya (HD – 22:09)
- Raya: Bringing it Home (HD – 14:35)
- Martial Artists (HD – 5:49)
- We Are Kumandra (HD – 9:09)
- Outtakes (HD – 2:23)
- Fun Facts & Easter Eggs (HD – 4:16)
- The Story Behind the Storyboard with John Ripa (HD – 5:02)
- Deleted Scenes (HD – 5 scenes with optional introducton by Fawn Veerasunthorn and John Ripa – 19:00 in all)
Us Again is a cute CG-animated short film that appeared before Raya in theaters, a spirited and atmospheric take on aging and the need to keep one’s spirit alive in the process. Taste of Raya is a clever retrospective gathering of some of the key cast and crew members, presented in the form of a virtual Zoom dinner hosted by Tran. As you might imagine, the participants discuss the challenges of finishing the film in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, most of these extras were produced in this way—with interviews conducted over Zoom, intercut with production footage, rough animation, and clips from the film—but to Disney’s credit it actually works. Given the unique circumstances in which the film was completed, not to mention the fact that the usual EPK promotional campaign never really happened due to the pandemic, these extras are actually more interesting and creative than we’ve typically seen on recent Disney discs. About the only thing that’s not here (but that would have been welcome) is an audio commentary. Nevertheless, the extras you do get are worth checking out. There’s also a Movies Anywhere Digital code on a paper insert in the packaging.
A couple of bumps aside, Raya and the Last Dragon is a lovely CG-animated film with beautifully-rendered production design, strong character performances, and an uplifting message worthy of sharing with the whole family. Disney’s 4K Ultra HD release offers the film in fine quality and delivers an unexpectedly good batch of special features to boot. Both the film and this disc are worth a look.
- Bill Hunt