Raya And The Last Dragon
Here’s one that should have made a huge splash, Disney’s 59th entry into their canon (I’ll be adding it to my list soon enough, don’t worry) but has instead been forced to limit itself to some “premier access” and belated showings in slowly re-opening cinemas. As such the usual tidal wave of expectation for the latest production of this studio was not really present, and even with the good reviews that Raya And The Last Dragon got upon its initial release, it was not something that I felt compelled to hand over an additional wad of change for (though, if I make take a moment, I actually don’t object to Disney doing that: Raya And The Last Dragon wasn’t created for a Disney+ release, and they are entitled to try and make their money back).
Disney Animation has been on a bit of a roll as of late, with only some rare misses in the catalogue of the last decade. Raya And The Last Dragon seemed, on the surface, to have all of the elements needed to become another one of the hits: a female focused story, which we could always use more of; an exotic setting with plenty of non-western elements; martial arts in an animated context; a good cast, with some notable stand-outs, not least Kelly Marie Tran, who is owed big by Disney after The Rise Of Skywalker tried to pretend she didn’t exist; and James Newton Howard, back with the mouse for the first time since his under-rated work on Treasure Planet nearly twenty years ago. A lot going in its favour then: was Raya And The Last Dragon another rip-roaring triumph for Disney Animation?
The ancient world of Kumandra is saved from the Druun by the sacrifice of the dragons, who used their powers to dispel the evil spirits and revive the land. Five hundred years later, with Kumandra divided between squabbling tribes, Chief’s daughter Raya (Tran) cynical and distrustful following old betrayals, goes on a quest to seek Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, and re-unite the five pieces of an ancient magical gem critical to defeating the returned menace of the Druun.
When I was looking up information on Raya And The Last Dragon after viewing it, there was one thing that made perfect sense to me. When I saw that there are eight credited writers, whether they are flat out writers or “Story By”, I knew what the main problem with the film was. Like others before that have fallen prey to the “Too Many Cooks” syndrome that so often strikes big studio offerings – a syndrome that can, in fairness, sometimes come up with something decent, though this is the rarity – Raya And The Last Dragon is a movie that has too many creative voices all trying to get a look-in, with the end result of their labours being very far from the appetizing stew we see Raya’s father making with elements from all five Kumandran kingdoms early on. It’s a martial arts story with wuxia and Samurai elements, it’s an Indiana Jones search for lost artifacts, it’s a family exploration, it’s zombies, it’s a thematic representation of numerous different traditions. To put in more of a Disney fashion, it’s Mulan and Moana and Frozen and even a bit of Big Hero 6. The problem is that these things just don’t mesh well.
I wanted to like Raya And The Last Dragon, but it was difficult to be engaged, which is not a problem that this studio usually has. What has emerged from the writing process is a remarkably safe picture in many ways, predictable in its course and conclusion, hitting key plot points and beats in a domino-like fashion, stuffing the film with enough side characters that every demographic will be satisfied, and never really doing the legwork required to make it all fit together and pop out at the audience. Raya is about the only real character in the story, and only because we are following her from the start: the multitude of hangers-on that she acquires are shallow figures here to tug on our heartstrings even as we bounce from place to place looking for more parts of the MacGuffin (which Raya acquires as fast as companions). The multi-ethnic cast is great in their roles, the world-building is relatively strong, but it’s just not fitting right together. Things fall into a very set pattern of dropping into a Kingdom, evading booby traps or human impediments, grabbing a gem piece and heading off the next one, with Susi dropping a few jokes to lighten the mood.
Only two other narratives and character arcs outside of Raya – who can too often be viewed as little more than a “badass” Princess with trust issues if I am being honest – really have the potential to fit in, and neither is able to stick the landing. The first, Awkwafina as dragon/humanoid dragon Sisu, who the production team clearly want to be this film’s Moshu/Maui/Genie/Baymax, but she rapidly becomes more irritating than entrancing, blathering on endlessly about the importance of trust and giving people gifts when she isn’t trying too hard to be ingratiating for the viewer.
The second, and potentially much more meaty in terms of narrative possibilities, is Raya’s one-time friend, now enemy, Namaari (Gemma Chan) whom she has a back-and-forth with through the film, but here too the character is let down by a lack of time and lines, reduced to little more than a obstacle to be managed by the film’s final act. Raya And The Last Dragon is a film that could have had some great character possibilities and relationships – the idea of two female wuxia/ninja warriors having a running battle over an old betrayal while each is seeking the same magical saviour has possibilities – but loses this is a sea of baby pickpockets, orphan ship captains/cooks, influencer-esque dragons and stoic warriors. The make-up of this motley crew very much feels like a case of a writers room where things were thrown at a wall and what stuck, regardless of how well it worked, got put in.
There is also an issue with what the movie is trying to say on a deeper level. I do like the central theme of the film, if it can be said to have one, which is that people from different places and nations just need to trust each other, if they are to improve the planet they are on. With some potent visuals of environmental collapse connected to the lack of dragons, it isn’t difficult to see the global warming subtext in all of this, through the Druun, who very much act like zombies even if they look more like weird energy clouds, seem like an odd inclusion in that regard. The various Kingdoms of Kumandra having to put aside their petty problems in order to save themselves is a powerful image but the problems is that it is all too easy.
I’m trying not to reveal too many details, but I can’t really hold my tongue: having done a half-decent job at setting up that conflict, and giving it a very human cipher in the drama between Raya and Namaari, the film then lets itself down by making the solution a little silly in its simplicity. Having insisted that people take the difficult option to stop being distrustful when it comes to each other, the film then has this step become the end in itself, solving all problems pretty much instantly. It’s a little much to accept, especially in the context of a possible global warming allusion. If the allusion is more about some other political issues, then it actually become actively insulting, an insistence on naive, blind trust in pursuit of healing, when that trust is not reciprocated. I suppose what I am trying to say is that Raya And The Last Dragon espouses a philosophy that everything wrong with our world can be fixed if we choose to stop fighting each other, and the lack of nuance in that idea in regards to, shall we say, certain fractured cultural landscapes (that Disney is a part of whether it wants to be or not) makes it difficult to accept.
At least Disney Animation are doing their usual sterling work when it comes to the visual department. Parts of Raya And The Last Dragon will look more than a little familiar to those familiar with Mulan in both its animated and live-action forms, but is a unique enough experience, finding more inspiration from south-east Asia than China. I found that Avatar: The Last Airbender sprang to mind as well, in the way that this quasi-eastern land, split into conveniently disparate chunks, was brought to life before us. Lush Heart, desert Tail, Singapore-like Talon, eerie woodland Spine and hidden city Fang all jump out in their own ways. Character models are smoothly animated and distinct in their looks, with the Druun a unique adversary especially, sort of angry purple tumbleweeds that like to consume people and then split in two.
On an action front Raya And The Last Dragon really does bring it, unique to the canon I suppose, in scenes that are both homages to a litany of martial arts stories that have come before, and interesting enough in their own right. Fights between the title character and her main rival are a treat, and the directing team clearly knows how to create impactful animation action. Newton Howard’s surprisingly electronica-like score is less impressive, having a forgettable quality to all of it, and not really a patch on some of the other scores that the studio have come out with recently: the inevitable debate is whether Raya And The Last Dragon should have had some actual songs, and I think it is undeniable that Disney Animation tends to have that quality in its higher tiers.
Raya And The Last Dragon is, to my genuine regret, a bit of a disappointment. The film has a great setting, a good cast, fine visuals and some good ideas, but lets itself down with a predictable plot that has too many characters and moves far too fast. Its resolution undercuts the message it is trying to make, the score is forgettable and the feeling that too many hands were involved in the narrative is difficult to shake. Disney Animation has done much better than this, and recently too: COVID denied Raya And The Last Dragon the audience it probably would have had in normal circumstances, but this is one case where I am not left lamenting this fact as much as I have for other films. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).