Originally scheduled to be released theatrically last year, Disney pulled the movie and decided to add it to their “Premiere Access” line of new movies, as they did with their live-action Mulan. That means you gotta pay $30 more to see it early at home. Gee, thanks, Disney!
Copycatted heavily from many sources like Kubo & the Two Strings, Moana, Mulan, Kung Fu Panda, Lara Croft, and L.O.T.R., we have the peaceful, thriving land of Kumandra that gets split into five warring nations (Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail)thanks to an evil spirit cloud called the Druun. Thankfully, it was vanquished by the last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), but she disappeared afterward, leaving behind the magical sphere, the Dragon Gem to keep the land pure. Keeping this gem safe in Heart is Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) and his rambunctious 12-year-old daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran).
But trouble rears its ugly head when Raya is betrayed by her new friend, Princess Namaari (Gemma Chan) and the Dragon Gem is shattered. Not only does each greedy nation grab a shard, but it releases the Druun again, wiping out people by turning them into stone! Uh-oh! Fast-forward six years and Raya, now a young woman, travels the land in search of the stolen shards and the rumored last dragon. With luck, Raya rubs a lamp. . .I mean, she manages to summon Sisu, a wise-cracking Genie… I mean a demi-god of Hawaii, … sorry, I mean, a little Chinese dragon that… dammit! I mean, a blue and white fluffy dragon who looks like Falcor from The Neverending Story.
Anyway, their mission is to visit each land, steal back a shard and finally heal The Dark Crystal… I mean, the Dragon Gem. BUT! On their tail every step on the way is a grown-up and very pissed-off Namaari who wants to stop her. Luckily, with each shard they get, Sisu grows stronger and can even shape-shift into a human, not to mention in each land they collect unusual and crazy allies to join them, like Boun (Izzac Wang) a fast-talking kid & shrimp boat captain, goofy warrior Tong (Benedict Wong) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hook Hand Thug from Tangled, and a baby con-artist and her three Kung-Fu monkeys. Yeah, you read that right.
For nearly two hours, it’s one long action-filled quest to get the shards, fulfill a destiny, learn a valuable lesson in the interim, and save the day, all the while presenting a message of hope, peace, and love for one another. Not that that’s a bad thing, but you’ve already seen this movie before in so many other films. First-time screenwriter Qui Nguyen (TV series Peg+Cat, Incorporated) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) haven’t written anything new here, but stole from previous Disney movies (Aladdin, Moana, Mulan) along with many other films and cranked out a passable, if clichéd, female-driven, action-adventure tale.
However, given the story was one that I’ve seen many times before, doesn’t mean I wasn’t entertained. Raya is a brave, formidable fighter who has her share of faults, doubts, and fears. And the secondary characters of Tong, Boun, and that nutty con-baby are pretty funny, but really, another wise-cracking, pop-culture referencing, supernatural buddy side-kick? Geez, Louise! I just can’t. Sisu is the Genie, Mushu, and Maui all rolled into one fluffy dragon ready to be sold as a plush toy by Disney.
Aside from that, the action moves well, thanks to some terrific direction by Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Summertime). Another wonderful aspect are the fight scenes, which are excellent, plus the jaw-dropping animation. And, as overused as the plot is, the last 20 minutes really shines and delivers a powerful, stunning message. Now, is this movie worth the additional $30 extra for Disney’s much-ballyhooed “Premiere Access” early viewing at home? That’s up to you. If you’re a big family, then yes, it’s worth a watch.
**Now streaming exclusively on Disney + and showing in select theaters
Kubo and the Two-Strings (2016)
Laika Studios, best known for their impressive and beautifully rendered stop-motion animated movies, have had a spotty theatrical history. Coraline was iffy, ParaNorman excelled in story and content, and their Boxtrolls left a bad aftertaste with a terrible Dickens-ish plot. Thankfully, they pulled a hat trick and took a pseudo-Japanese folktale and spun it into a dramatic adventure yarn.
Told like an Akira Kurosawa tale (minus the gratuitous bloodshed and body dismemberment), this mini-epic tells of magic, spiritualism, and ultimate bravery in a young boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) who has the same powerful magic as his very ill mother (Charlize Theron). Washed up on a distant shore after being pursed by ancient spirits, one-eyed Kubo (he’s got an eye-patch) and his mother hide out in a cave while Kubo makes some money in the village below by telling stories. Using his mom’s shamisen (a Japanese three-string guitar), he conjures up paper origami figures to life, delighting the crowds with fanciful and incredible tales.
But things go south when mom’s two evil witch sisters (Rooney Mara as both) come a’callin’ for Kubo’s other eye, as servants of the all-powerful and wicked Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who just happens to be Kubo’s grandpa. Yeah, this is one messed-up family! Anyway, mom sacrifices her life to save Kubo and teleports the kid to a distant snowy tundra where he meets Monkey (Theron again), a mystical no-nonsense monkey as his new guide. Their quest? To find Kubo’s father’s special magical weapons: a samurai sword, a helmet, and body armor. All these can (hopefully) defeat the Moon King.
On their trek, they meet a dim-witted, half-man/half Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who joins the two on their quest. Naturally, finding these magical WMD’s is no walk in the park, as they are pursued by creatures that either want to tear them limb from limb or rip their very soul apart. Mind you, this is a KIDS film! There’s a third act surprise with reveals to the Monkey and the Beetle, but I won’t spoil that here. Suffice to say, Kubo and his three-strings (he never really has two-strings for some odd reason) ends up saving the day, but at a heavy cost; quite the unusual climax to this film where you’d expect a happy, red-ribbon ending.
A dynamic screenplay by Chris Haimes and Marc Butler (Coraline, ParaNorman), the story doesn’t short-cut with cutsie Disney-esque clowning around and silly side-stories, instead you get a hard-core storyline with high-stakes, life and death gambles, and some funny scenes at it’s core. And Kubo himself is played as a reluctant hero sometimes, a brat occasionally, and a regular mischievous kid; refreshing to see in a movie of this nature. And you really have to appreciate the painstaking, meticulous effort that goes into making stop-motion animation. It’s just breath-taking to watch.