Raya and the Last Dragon builds a vibrant and beautiful world only to populate it with platitudes.
Now that Raya is free from Disney’s paywall, let’s see how their latest animated flick stacks up. From the get-go, we see an intriguing, visually impressive world and unique art-style. Raya herself has a strong voice and personality, and a suitably adorable sidekick. As we learn about her world and the dragons at the heart of it, I was utterly fascinated. That feeling steadily eroded as the story played out and the solutions to Raya’s heroic journey boil down to kindergarten life-lessons.
Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. However, when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned, and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya (Kelley Marie Tran) to track down the last dragon and stop the Druun for good.
What a World!
Kumandra is a visual feast, filled with unique biomes and inhabitants. Each region has splintered off into its own kingdom after the passing of the dragons, and boasts its own culture and style. Though inspired by various Asian arts and cultures, Kumandra retains its own sensibility and aesthetic. The high point of the film is watching Raya journey through each land in her quest to reunite the shards of a broken crystal containing the dragons’ power.
Disney has found a winning strategy, at least visually, in the most recent films. Like Moana and Coco, the CG is fluid and vibrant. It also highlights cultural elements with a mixed media style that leaps off the screen. Finally, it seems that ever since Fantasia, Disney has known that water is life. Think of Mickey summoning the waves, gigantic tides crashing behind Ariel, and even the way Elsa skated up the swell of a tsunami on runners of ice. Moana‘s CG water was fantastic; Raya’s use of water is jaw-dropping. Dragons leap from raindrop to raindrop or burst out of vortexes of seething water that looks as real as a 4K National Geographic special. It’s a technical masterpiece.
With how rich and wonderful Kumandra is in scope and beauty, it’s a bitter disappointment that Raya and the Last Dragon’s ethical structure is so paltry. It all boils down to “trust other people and work together.” That’s it. No nuance. No allowances for the times in the movie that doing exactly that nearly gets Raya and her companions killed. Heck, trusting others is exactly what causes the world to need saving in the first place. Raya and the Last Dragon wants you to keep banging your head against that same locked door until finally it opens. The one time trusting someone works out apparently negates all the times Raya’s wise reservations should have been heeded.
It’s doubly frustrating as this one maxim is repeated ad naseum, like a teacher drilling the ABC’s into the heads of a class of toddlers. Raya’s dad says it (and it gets him betrayed and turned into stone.) The last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), says it over and over, and each time she puts it into practice she nearly scuttles the whole quest. When Raya finally relents and does trust someone, it instantly backfires on them, so she does it again and finally it works. It’s an idea that, when unqualified, leads to bad outcomes, yet the movie treats it like an unquestionable mantra.
The Eyes Have It?
I really wanted to be swept away by Raya and the Last Dragon. It’s such a great, intricate world with stunning visuals. The fight scenes are fluid and energetic, and the pace moves you through the world perfectly, stopping just long enough to let you soak in all the grandeur before whisking you away to another wonderful location. The film just had two flaws that I just couldn’t get over. First, the flimsy platitude of a moral discussed above. Second, the tone is often discordant, with Raya and other using diction that doesn’t mesh with the mythical setting/tone of the film, and Awkwafina’s Sisu feeling like a Whoopi Goldberg impression.
I would like to say that very young kids and adults who can shut off their inner critic will find a lot to enjoy. I think that’s kinda crap though, since the moral of this story is actually dangerous at this precise moment in world history. If you could wave a magic wand and make everyone agree to trust each other and work together in good faith, yeah, a lot of our problems would be solved. But in a world where trolls, bad-faith actors, liars and zealots are actively tearing the country apart, it would be downright suicidal to blindly “trust them and work together.” There are no magic dragons in the real world to save the day when somebody who gave you every reason to distrust them stabs you in the back.