Friday, March 5, 2021

Animated 'Raya' outpoints lively Murphy sequel in battle of streamers

Amazon Prime and Disney+ might enjoy their battle of giant streaming services this weekend since both likely will attract a slew of disparate subscribers -- old, new, and maybe even just curious.

From here, anyway, the critical winner appears to be the latter, whose "Raya and the Last Dragon" combines its strikingly rich animation with a girl-friendly empowerment story that's occasionally predictable if mostly entertaining. Simply think "Frozen" (minus the songs), "Brave" and "Mulan," with influences from "Boss Baby," "Indiana Jones" and, at least visually, that famously giant donut on the roof of the iconic Randy's in Los Angeles.

The titled young warrior/narrator (nicely voiced by Kelly Marie Tram from two recent "Star Wars" films) explains that, despite how viewers decipher what they're seeing early on -- that is, "a lone rider in a dystopian world 500 years ago"-- she really belongs to "a paradise in a harmonious world."

Though darkness does abound from a mysterious plague that turns people to stone, including our heroine's wise and kind dad (Daniel Dae Kim), the determined Raya sets out to make all things whole again by finding her divided country's fabled last dragon. 

That arduous task reaches fruition rather quickly, and the multi-colored creature called Sisu turns out to be a wise-cracking beauty of a beast with a few tricks of her own hidden behind those blue-tinted, pony-like locks. Of course, with the always funny Awkwafina offering her rock-solid vocal accompaniment, Sisu becomes the genuine scene-stealing star of this pretty piece, which itself leaves plenty of room for a worthy adversary (Gemma Chan), an assortment of delightful sidekicks, and a major message for the ages. 

There's good news for those who might prefer seeing such lavish, CGI detailed on a big screen, too, because "Raya" is opening today at numerous theaters, as well as on the aforementioned Disney+. 

Rated "PG" by MPAA: some violence, action and thematic elements; 1:48; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Meanwhile, a Prime Video-only offering returns Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall to the royal confines of Zamunda in "Coming 2 America," an energetic sequel with no nudity and enough carefully worded language to tone it down to "PG-13" from the 30-year-old original's harder, more hilarious "R" -- as in restricted -- rating. 

Still, there's a lot of chuckles handed out by the milder, gentler Murphy, once again playing an array of funny guys, including the owner of that wild and crazy barbershop in Queens. Mostly, though, Murphy's smiling Zamundan ruler Akeem allows the silly plot to swirl around him while staying loyal to his wife (Shari Headley), father (James Earl Jones) and ever-devoted servant/pal Simmi (Hall, who also shows off his chops in multiple roles).

Naturally, other comedians appear, too, as John Amos and Louie Anderson return from the original in cameos, while Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan enter the fray on the New York end with strong family connections to a long-lost son Akeem never thought he had. That would be Jermaine Fowler, almost playing straight man to it all but actually aiding Akeem's oldest daughter (Kiki Layne) in giving her father -- and most of Zamunda -- reason to recognize the severe inequality of their nation's outdated sexist policies.

Music helps the film pop, too, with soulful arrivals from the likes of En Vogue, Gladys Knight and Salt-N-Peppa spicing up proceedings that might feature a wiggle or shake here and a lavish costume there. Oh yeah, another band of musicians, headed by an excitable "Randy Watson," orchestrates a gyrating and truly grand finale as well. You probably won't recognize that name, but the familiar face becomes another reason to laugh a bit more.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA; crude and sexual content, language and drug content; 1:50; $ $ $ out of $5

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