Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s newest animated offering, has a few things going for it. It’s an original creation (but don’t confuse that with being original). It has a strong voice cast and a nice message. And it has the colorful cg sheen you’d expect from a Disney product. But it’s just that. A product.    

Raya and the Last Dragon takes place, for once, in a fantasy world without British accents. The world of Kumandra draws heavily from Southeast Asian cultures, but the story is typically Disney: A hero’s journey that imparts a message of peace and coexistence.

500 years ago, humans and dragons lived together, but that peace was broken by generic purple cloud monsters called the Druun that turn every living thing they touch into stone… you know what? I’m going to skip this plot stuff. No matter how bombastically it’s presented in the movie (with typical 2D scroll art and a bombastic score by James Newton Howard, no less), this is all rote fantasy stuff. What you need to know is that the titular Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and the equally titular dragon, the talkative Sisu (Awkwafina, charming as always), embark on a journey through five different kingdoms to reunite a magical MacGuffin that’s going to unstone the stoned and bring peace to their land. An ersatz family is created on the way as they pick up new allies in each land. Lessons are learned. Everybody’s happy. Cue the fireworks.        

Raya is pretty, but pretty generic. Everything in this story exists as allegory meant to inform rather than titillate the imagination; it’s less world building and more lesson learning. Landscapes are appropriately lush, but not terribly memorable. I did like the leafy doughnut-shaped mountain rising out of the background of Raya’s homeland, though. And the way the dragons are envisioned is cool also. They’re furry, more slinky than angry reptile and they can’t fly, at least not with wings. Instead, they create colorful steps out of rain drops and basically run through the air during a storm. Other than that, the movie doesn’t tax the imagination. The best the filmmakers come up with is “toot and boom” bugs whose farts are explosive (y’know, so the kids will laugh).

There are a couple of fight scenes (y’know, so the adult will be excited). They’re short, not sweet. It seems like the moment you make a movie with Asian themes, martial arts must be involved. Such rich and varied cultures, yet somehow Asian always equals “Kung Fu” in American movies.  And look, I love martial arts movies, I just cheered through Jimmy Wang Yu’s The One-Armed Boxer from 1972 the other night, but here it comes off as reductive. And because it’s a Disney product, you know it’s not included because of a love for the genre, but as a calculated scheme to pander to as many demographics as possible.

And I probably wouldn’t be so critical if the fight scenes didn’t feel like an afterthought. The biggest problem is that the story is tied so closely to “we shouldn’t fight” that the fighting can’t be enjoyed when they do; we feel bad when these characters come to blows.

It doesn’t help that martial arts in CG animated movies almost always look like rubber people boinging around the screen. Raya is no different. The fighting’s too smooth, no impact. While I suspect the choreography is intricate, it doesn’t matter because the virtual camera is always zooming and swishing around the action and the animation is just boing, boing, boing.

The voice acting is good, though. Kelly Marie Tran is great as Raya; bold, energetic. After being unceremoniously dropped from the last Star Wars movie, it’s nice to see her rebound here. She even sells some of the terrible dialogue she’s saddled with. “Oh, you know, bling is my thing.” That’s right, ancient world, modern slang. I don’t mind. Fantasylands don’t have to all be filled solely with portentous proclamations, except it’s only here to y’know, entertain the tweens in the audience.

And is it just me or is there some queer coding to Raya’s scenes with her antagonist, Namaari (Gemma Chan), a friend turned enemy in less than five minutes? Raya seems especially hurt that Namaari turned on her, but there’s also something about their awkward banter that sounds more like terrible flirting than anything else. And, fuck, if there’s anything I know about, it’s terrible flirting. So, if it’s there, cool. If I’m imagining it, I wish it were there. But again, is it there just to, y’know, appeal to a gay audience, and is it subtle so as not to offend conservatives (read: assholes)?

That’s the thing, everything about Raya, even the stuff I liked, feels too calculated somehow. Like a pretty but toxic plastic sheen enveloping what wants to be a robust heart.  I found myself questioning everything. Is this here because the filmmakers had a passion for it or because some exec wanted to appeal to the largest demographic? The fact that the movie has eight people listed in the “Story By” credit and four friggin’ directors convinces me of the latter.

Look. No lie. It’s great that we have an American movie with a primarily Asian cast and mythology. And the central message is a good one too. There are no bad guys. We’re all one. We gotta work together. Hippie-dippie stuff that I deride in public as saccharine, but secretly gives me the warm and fuzzies inside. But is it worth $30 as part of Disney+’s Premiere Access or a trip to a disease infested movie theater? No way. Wait ‘til June and check it out for yourself when it becomes available without the extra fee on Disney’s streaming service. You’ll probably still feel a vague disappointment but at least it won’t have anything to do with blowing thirty bucks on the movie.

-Pavel Klein


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