Quick Movie Reviews (Land & Raya and the Last Dragon)

Land

We first meet Edee (Robin Wright) as she’s making her way up a mountain, stopping briefly in town to gather supplies, load up a U-Haul and toss her cellphone into the trash. She’s done with other people, as it becomes clear when she arrives at a remote cabin in the woods, an edge-of-the-world perch that suggests her seeming indifference to whether she lives or dies. But while Edee can cut herself off from any contact with the outside world, she can’t short-circuit her painful memories — namely, her husband and young son. She also can’t apparently hunt, chop firewood or keep a hungry bear from devouring her rations. Aside from the visits from a bear, Land is decidedly not The Revenant, as wilderness survival stories go, a film less interested in covering you in mud and viscera. Initially, the movie pushes more in the direction of Wild, another portrait of an emotionally bereft woman seeking refuge in extreme isolation, but Jessica Chatham’s script is a more linear story without that film’s time-hopping energy.

Wright, making her feature directorial debut, seems keen to pare away essentials and steep us, for a while, in the tough rituals of everyday survival. The physical details are properly transporting; as the seasons change and get incrementally more lethal. The near-death experiences that befall Edee in quick succession grow naturally out of her harsh surroundings, even as they suggest an almost metaphysical intensification of her grief. For all Wright’s skill at trudging through the physically demanding milieu, it’s her precise, delicate work in front of the camera that gives this story its initial pull. Edee may no longer want (or know how) to live, but her survival instincts inevitably kick in, sometimes against her own will. Instincts alone aren’t enough, of course, and Land would likely be even shorter than its fleeting eighty-nine-minute runtime were it not for the arrival of Miguel (Demián Bichir) and Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), who pass by and nurse Edee back to health. Miguel sticks around for a while and comes back every so often, briefly raising the specter of romance. But his growing bond with Edee remains both platonic and practical-minded, as he replenished her dwindling supplies and teaches her the basics of wilderness survival.

Image via Focus Features

The specifics of the situation are only faintly sketched in; there are passing references to a nearby Indigenous reservation where Alawa lives and works as a nurse and to which Miguel delivers clean water. But while Bichir and Wright have a touching, bittersweet rapport there’s never any real doubt or mystery about the narrative function Miguel serves here. He’s there to pull Edee away from the edge of the cliff and hold up a mirror to her own tragedy, to provide a sympathetic shoulder even if she isn’t quite ready to cry on it yet. He’s also there to sing a bunch his ’80s pop favorites, an amusingly awkward detail that would be more endearing if it didn’t feel so much like calculated moments to forcefully endear. And it’s that calculation that finally makes Land play more like a tidy study of physical endurance and emotional recovery than a fully sustained immersion in Edee’s experience. The film’s natural beauty is undeniable, but it remains a surface-level kind of beauty, one that glosses over the sweat of its protagonist’s various breakthroughs. While Robin Wright shows a basic competency behind the camera, Land stills feels like a retread of vastly familiar material, as Wright stays stays far too terse with the emotional entanglements, forcing it into being an emotionally obvious drama.

Grade: C+

Land is available on VOD

Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) has some serious trust issues. Not long after she follows her dad’s lead when he offers a union to the fellow leaders of the other kingdoms that once comprised Kumandra — an ancient utopia of cross-cultural unity — she’s betrayed by a new friend, Namarri (Gemma Chan). Raya had openly offered to give her new pal a peek at the dragon gem that’s causing all the divide amongst the adults. Unfortunately for Raya, Namaari’s camaraderie is part of plan to steal the precious rock: in this factionalized, dog-eat-dog world, even the kids are con artists. Turns out the stone is the only thing standing between humanity and the Druun, a “mindless plague,” that turns people into stone. So as others attempt to steal it and it’s quickly shattered, it throws the planet into the Dark Ages.

It’s from there where we jump six years later, where Raya is now a young woman and a solo adventurer traversing around a desert wasteland on her trusty large armadillo. Her moment of past weakness haunts her, both figuratively and literally, as Namaari is still on her tail. And as directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada tackle the theme of having faith in the other person, our heroine is of course introduced to a collective; one member of note being Sisu (Awkwafina), the titular last dragon, who isn’t a menacing behemoth so much as a klutzy, shape-shifting creature. As Raya and her company traverse multiple lands to try and collect the scattered pieces of the stone, we’re introduced to the film’s expansive world, which the animators enliven with meticulously detailed environments — rainforest shrines teeming with visible moisture, snowy mountainy fortresses shrouded in fog.

Image via Disney

As it head into its final act, Raya and the Last Dragon increasingly takes the form of a standard Disney fable, with big action sequences and even bigger leaps of faith. But on its way to a fairly conventional conclusion, screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim offer a few inspired detours, too. In creating the lands of former Kumandra, the film takes inspiration from a multitude of countries: A swirl of influences from Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines can be found in everything from the jolty fight scenes to the various attires of the kingdoms to the culinary delights that foster community among this chosen family. When Raya and the Last Dragon takes the time to ruminate on recovery, it meaningfully distinguishes itself from the rest of the Disney princess oeuvre. Only the Disney boilerplate messaging obscures its intended power, but its reaching for such a specific form of sorrow is more admirable than fully fulfilled. As rushed its beats may be and as much as it wears down its central theme, Raya and the Last Dragon carries a beautifully animated sense of adventure that genuinely balances it out.

Grade: B-

Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream on Disney+

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