Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is a Beautifully Ambitious Film (with some very specific oddities)

In a realm known as Kumandra, a re-imagined Earth inhabited by an ancient civilization consisting of five nations named after different parts of a dragon’s body, a warrior named Raya is determined to find the last dragon.

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 to track down the last dragon and stop the Druun for good.

When trailers for Disney’s latest film Raya and the Last Dragon began showing up, I knew two things– one, we were heading for a South East Asian fantasy land, and second, it was a “we have to save the world” adventure. I still love how Kelly Marie Tran very quietly slipped into the role of Raya even though we Degrassi: The Next Generation fans had been waiting to hear Cassie Steele in the titular role. The reason for the replacement? Disney says that Steele no longer “fit the character as Raya evolved”. The cynical translation? Just because the character is Filipina and you’re Filipina doesn’t mean you can voice act, sorry not sorry, you’re out. I would love to hear some early voice footage of Cassie Steele in the role, but I definitely think Kelly Marie Tran filled the shoes beautifully and did a great job as Raya.

But a voice replacement isn’t what this article is about. A review of Raya and the Last Dragon is not what this article is. Raya is a visually stunning film. The movie tugged on the heartstrings and had some very emotionally charged moments with a breathtaking score by James Newton Howard guiding it along. The overall themes of found family and citizens of a nation unable to trust each other amidst a crisis is a sadly familiar theme in the current state of the world, one that is still reeling from a health crisis.

Plus, to viewers with a narrow scope of South East Asian folklores, fairy tales, and legends there may seem like there are themes present in Raya which overlap with Avatar: The Last Airbender. I think this is a superficial comparison, personally. I honestly think that Disney already leaned into ATLA with Frozen 2 and the idea of Elsa as the Fifth Spirit and the link between all of the elements. Though I will certainly agree with some folks about the uncanny resemblance between Korra’s water-nation garb and young Raya’s costume. If that is a nod or homage versus cultural roots, I will be the first to admit that I just don’t have that knowledge.

On the topic of themes that Disney already tackled that may or may not be presents in Raya and the Last Dragon, I will take this time to segue into some elements that I think from a narrative or compositional stand point just didn’t work. It’s the job of the reader if you want to shut down my perspective with a simple “It’s a kids movie, it’s not for you”, but to that I’ll disagree because Disney movies have always been known as Family Films. It’s the specific narrative moments or characters that people of different ages gravitate toward, but never have Disney movies been strictly for kids. That’s what Disney Jr. is for.

The first aspect I didn’t enjoy– the opening scene Info Dump. I am beyond exhausted by the “We don’t know how to make the viewer understand this world, so let’s begin as a play, a story, a scroll, etc.” I’m not even kidding– Raya is the fourth movie in a row to do this following Zootopia, Moana, Frozen 2, and now Raya and the Last Dragon. This isn’t even a warm opening movie style– it’s like a hot opening for people who can’t catch on to nuance. Think back to The Little Mermaid– there was like two lines said by a sailor to tell us there was a King Triton and that mer-people exist before he got slapped in the face with a fish and we were swimming undersea.

Beauty and the Beast started with an info dump about Beast’s transformation, but at least when that happened it wasn’t every single movie yet. I would have taken a cold opener with the actual scene where the thing happened to him, but that would have taken away from the OH MY GOD HE’S SUCH A HOT BLOND DRINK OF WATER TROPHY TO REWARD BELLE’S LOVE FOR MONSTER CREATURE DUDES moment that we got at the end, but that’s not the conversation we’re having.

Back to Raya!

By now, I am questioning the awkward Gray Area Disney has created when it comes to good versus evil. There is a trend where evil isn’t in people, it’s in nature and the elements. Moana had Te’Ka, Frozen 2 had… well, the whole damn forest, and now Raya has The Purple Smoke Ooze called Druun. I read a report that discussed how early drafts of Raya had Namaari as a more cut and dry villain who controlled the evil purple smoke. And while that might be too cartoonish for this flavor of cartoon, I still found Namaari (the Fang Princess, I guess we can call her) pretty villainous. How many times did she stab Raya in the back through this movie or act in a way that wasn’t trustworthy before giving in to her Zuko-Style Redemption Arc? It was a few too many times and I found it to be clownishly predictable by the end. There’s subtle suggesting that she’s just following orders because her mom is telling her how to bad guy, but those themes are loose at best and don’t take it all the way.

Stick with me, we’ll have more on half measures in a moment.

Yes, I wanted these girls to be lesbians. I was craving the lesbian romance and explicit love story at the end. But this is a Disney movie and they’re not going to pull the trigger and do that. By now, we can all read the physical queer coding as presented in both Namaari and Raya and hope that one day queer romances will be seen as wholesome and beautiful as a heterosexual one. But even where we stand today, Disney movies are relying less and less on romances to punctuate and culminate the story, as seen in Zootopia, Moana, and Frozen. So, if we’re not ready for a gay story at least we’re not relying on straight ones either at this time. But whereas Elsa was fiercely independent and Moana was just young, Raya and Namaari had intensely romantic chemistry through the whole film that included suggestive banter and sincere intrigue by each other. This idea of the unfulfilled non-ship is a theme that you will see all over the internet in ever article that discusses Raya and the Last Dragon, so I’m not original here. I’m just a queer person who likes love stories and thinks the enemies to lovers trope is hot.

Now, since this movie is called Raya and the Last Dragon, let’s take some time to discuss the Dragon in this film. Her name is Sisu, she has a dragon form and a human form, she’s voiced by a woman whose stage name is Awkwafina, and I think she’s supposed to fill the role of the…unlikely savior…or something in this movie. To put it bluntly, her character is just weird. She’s just weird, there’s nothing more succinct I can say there. I saw an article about how Awkwafina improvised some or all of her dialogue and I wasn’t impressed. Sisu isn’t funny. Sisu isn’t quirky. I see what they were going for with her, but I don’t think they took it all the way. It’s like if Pippi Longstocking was a dragon, and that’s even less attractive and endearing in execusion than it sounds on paper.

That same sentiment applies to nearly all of the characters in Raya and the Last Dragon– many things and many motivations are done in half measures to the point where it’s difficult to connect to characters or sympathize with them. Sisu was supposed to embody innocence and wide eyed trust that everyone can be friends and get along, which runs some parallels with Raya’s father, the Chief of the Heart Nation named Benga. She was chosen by the other dragons to be the last dragon because she’s a river spirit who believes in trust and can organize and pull people all together, even if she’s not the most likely choice. But may I say for the record, how rushed and not emphasized was that river spirit Sisu idea? Blink and you will miss it.

The most disjointed part about this movie is The Last Dragon herself, and it shows/proves how much trouble Disney has with sidekicks and side characters. Note the trouble Disney had getting Hei-Hei figured out in Moana– you can see early artwork and toy designs where he was smug and arrogant before becoming endearingly braindead. I was legitimately relieved when Boun, Noi, and Tong showed up because I really thought that Raya and Sisu had no chemistry together. They were clumsy and awkward and I really didn’t think I would be able to tolerate an hour and a half of their road trip together. Nick Wilde and Judy Hops were so natural together, as were Moana and Maui. Sisu and Raya just didn’t have it, so again, I was grateful when their adventure together wasn’t solo for very long.

These characters were fantastic.

Representation matters immensely in all storytelling, especially stories made in the US where we are a huge melting pot. But I think it’s critical to note that representation isn’t simply skin colors or body types– it’s the people in the stories. I have had it up to here with Princess and Chosen One stories as presented by Disney. Yes, Moana was Polynesian, but she was the daughter of a chief. In Moana, the story began as a tale of a future ruler who was reluctant to accept her role on the island because she was drawn to the sea. But the narrative switched when the island had a curse and she had to venture out to the sea in order to save her people. That could have been any kid on the island taking on that role, not the daughter of the chief per se.

You two gonna kiss yet or what?

The same notion is present in Raya and the Last Dragon. Why is this a royal game of Grab Ass between the chiefs’ daughters? Why are these chosen ones continuously royal in recent stories? And while we have stories like Belle and Tiana’s where they marry into royalty but begin from humble roots, we have this feigned notion of diversity while adhering to these Special Snowflake stories. This is what made Zootopia so special– an unlikely hero and antihero make magic happen together in spite of the odds. Raya could have had these same elements, but no matter what skin you throw on it, no matter how much girl power and we don’t need a man is shoved into the audience’s face, no matter if you have your characters sword fighting, you’re still giving them just another princess story.

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