It’s surprising how little trust there is in the world. Two decades removed from the turn of the century and the internet becoming prevalent in our lives, people have taken to thinking they know better than everyone else. There’s an extreme lack of trust in our politicians, our doctors, and even our fellow man. How did it get this way? That’s possibly too big of a topic to really broach in this review, but Raya and the Last Dragon touches on that very subject.
A reflection of our society told through the lens of an Asian fairytale, it has some very impactful moments and a ton of heart, but it isn’t exactly concerned with fleshing out its world or characters much beyond formulaic Disney tropes. That doesn’t mean the film is bad, but I think my hopes were maybe a bit too high for what we’ve gotten.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Directors: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada
Release Date: March 5, 2021 (Theatrical, Disney+ Premium), June 4, 2021 (Disney+ Free)
Raya and the Last Dragon begins like many classic Disney films before it: with a recap of the events leading to our current situation. In a fictional land called Kumandra some 500 years ago, many different tribes lived together in harmony with mythical dragons. The land was split among five tribes that each shared a different body part of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine.
One day, a pack of sinister monsters known as the Druun invaded and nearly wiped-out humanity with it. The dragons made a desperate attempt to save the humans by sacrificing themselves and leaving behind an orb that contains mystical powers for the dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina). Due to the greed in their hearts, this event then turned the tribes against each other as they looked for any attempt to save themselves.
The story then picks up 500 years later in Heart. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is in the middle of her training to become a watcher of the dragon orb, the object being the only thing keeping the Druun at bay. Following an exercise with her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), he explains to her his vision for reunifying the land of Kumandra. After inviting all of the tribes over for a ceremonial feast, Raya quickly becomes friends with the daughter of Fang’s tribe, Namaari (Gemma Chan). Sadly, Namaari has other plans and backstabs Raya, leading to the dragon orb getting shattered and plunging the world into darkness once again.
With all of the setup now done, we shift time again to six years later in a desolate land. Raya is on the trail of the last dragon, Sisu, and has searched far and wide for her. Never giving up hope of seeing her father again, her search proves fruitful as she manages to reawaken Sisu. This kicks off her journey to reassemble the dragon orb and save Kumandra.
That’s a lot of summarizing to get through, I know, but it’s about the deepest the story gets in Raya and the Last Dragon. The movie is maybe a little too concerned with correctly setting up its plot and world that it frontloads a ton of exposition on the viewer. While that should mean the rest of the plot is free of any padding, it also has the side effect of making the pacing feel rushed.
It’s not hard to see that the general theme of the movie is that of trusting one another. Raya practically beats you over the head with this message, having multiple characters talk about how their trust was broken, how trust will save us, how trust has to be earned, etc. It’s absolutely an effective way to build a character arc for Raya, who has been living for quite some time looking over her shoulder, but it comes at the cost of any further development for the rest of the cast.
Take Sisu, for instance. While not exactly embodying the trope of “Born Sexy Yesterday,” her naivety about how dishonest and deceitful people can be drives most of the scenarios in the film. Raya is off looking for the orb and Sisu’s kind heart has her stumble into trouble, diverting from the main plot. It’s frustrating, but her optimism is infectious. Unfortunately, Sisu acts more as a catalyst for Raya’s development instead of being a fleshed-out character herself.
Due to her little diversions, though, Raya does assemble something of a merry band of travelers, but they don’t really serve many functions beyond being McGuffins. I can absolutely feel for their plight of losing their families and living in fear, but we don’t get any neat flashbacks or even exposition detailing their struggle. They oppose Raya at first, get helped by her, join without question, then continue on.
The only side character the comes close to getting development is Namaari due to her connection to Raya. She generally shows up in stereotypical villainess situations for the first half but begins to have a change of heart during a pivotal moment I won’t spoil. In fact, this can segue beautifully into talking about the animation, which is generally high quality.
Raya doesn’t exactly rival the work of Pixar, but Disney’s animation studio has certainly come a long way with its 3D animation techniques. During some shots, I could swear that Raya was actually a live-action movie. The environments are lush, colorful, and all themed after different countries in Asia. I’m not versed enough in my geography to figure out what each land represents, but you’ll see lots of Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian aesthetics on display in all of their glory.
What’s really impressive, however, is the attention given to character faces. With more cartoony proportions, each character has these big eyes that look like portals into their souls. The general fluidity of things might be a little stiff, but you can feel an innate connection to these characters simply by staring into their eyes. I’m reminded of the commentary track on the Wall-E Blu-Ray where director Andrew Stanton spoke about how he designed Wall-E to have expressive eyes to get emotions across to the audience. Raya and the Last Dragon likely paid attention to that, because it’s very effective at getting across a mood without speaking any words. I was nearly brought to tears at one scene.
That’s probably for the best, too, as the dialogue can sometimes be clunky. Both Awkwafina and Kelly Marie Tran are excellent in their roles, but bits of the writing can be cringy at times. If you’ve watched the trailer, that’s about what you could expect from the jokes. Everything is maybe a little too modern-sounding and will ultimately date the film in a couple of years. At least the jokes are kept to something of a minimum, but that’s more because Raya has absolutely no time to mess around with how fast it moves.
Despite clocking in at nearly two hours long, my head was spinning by the end. I guess it’s a testament to how engaging a minimalist story can be that I wasn’t bored, but I left the film feeling like not much had changed. Raya starts the movie as a good person and concludes her journey as a good person. She maybe fumbles a bit in the middle with trust issues, but she also quickly puts her trust in Sisu and their group of travelers for the sake of moving the plot along. I would have liked to see the film tackle the idea that trust needs to be earned or that actions speak louder than words: really, anything to further drive the point home apart from characters saying trust is good.
You may have noticed I haven’t even named Raya’s other friends and that’s for a good reason. While none of them detract from the overall theme, they don’t really resonate much throughout the story. In a weird way, Raya and the Last Dragon feels like an RPG game where you amass different party members and use them for very specific sequences. Once their role has been served, they can go back into the rotation and wait for the final boss fight (which, coincidentally, happens here).
I may sound like I’m being harsh on the film, but I suppose that just comes down to my own expectations. When Disney announced it would be creating an animated feature taking inspiration from Southeast Asian culture, I was thrilled. I’m in love with Kung Fu cinema -as evidenced by my monthly column– and I’m fascinated by the customs of different Eastern cultures. I wanted Raya to introduce all of that to a global audience and do justice to the philosophy and teachings of those respective countries. The film is hardly offensive, but it also doesn’t do much beyond being a typical Disney film.
At least there’s no princess that needs to be saved by a handsome prince who just happens to swoop in at the right time. Hell, Raya rarely needs saving as she is strong and kicks ass in quite a few scenes. The action sequences, in particular, are all quite exciting and shot well. It’s just that we’ve seen this type of movie a million times from Disney. It really doesn’t offer anything new that the company’s back catalog can’t already fulfill.
At the same time, I do feel the message of unification and trust is an exceptionally important one for our current society. With the pandemic still raging on and pushing us further and further into isolation, we would all do well to remember that we’re all in this together. Instead of acting high and mighty and dismissing even the slightest deviation from our own opinions, we should be coming together to discuss, share, and love each other. As cheesy as that old song is, what the world needs now is love, sweet love.
So where does that leave us with Raya and the Last Dragon? For all intents and purposes, it’s a solid enough Disney film that is well animated, well-acted, decently directed, and maybe a bit too unfocused. I’m not sure if I would recommend paying the premium price for the “privilege” of streaming it early, but you could do much worse than checking this out once it becomes available for free on Disney+. It’s certainly entertaining if that’s the only metric you need to watch a film. I just hoped it would be more than a popcorn flick.