Raya and the Last Dragon
Don Hall, Carloes Lopez, Estrada
Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim, Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Kiel Murray, John Ripa, Dean Wellins
Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Jona Xiao, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, Alan Tudyk
For the longest time, Walt Disney Animation focused entirely on bringing written works to life whether it was fairy tales or classic works of literature. Only in recent years have they really stepped away from that model with any measure of success. Raya and the Last Dragon is one such work, taking bits and pieces of Southeast Asian culture and lore, then infusing them into an organic whole with an inventive and creative story filled with fascinating details.
Set in a dystopian world, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is the daughter of a mighty defender of an orb containing the last bit of dragon magic, used to hold back a vile enemy that feeds off negative energy. After the orb is shattered, Raya goes in search of the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), who she hopes can help rid the land of these once defeated enemies before they claim the last of civilization.
The film’s focus on disunity as a source of conflict is a compelling narrative focus that looks toward trust, harmony, and solidarity as unifying concepts. In the fractious world we live in, it’s a strong metaphor for modern society. It’s also reflective of the shared history of the nations in Southeast Asia, which were embroiled in the Vietnam war. Those two connections make for a compelling historical reference for the film. Teaching children valuable lessons in acceptance and tolerance has been a part of Disney’s heritage from as far back as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and in bits and pieces throughout its history.
Yet, Raya and the Last Dragon feels like it’s trying to jam too many adventures into the span of one film. There are limited scenes of inactivity where the characters can reflect on the events that have come before and will come after. This creates a feeling of a rushed narrative. We get all the exposition, but it feels too thinly drawn for such an expansive and vibrant world.
The backdrops are sensational, gorgeously drawn and richly appointed, yet the realism of the environment is tempered by the exaggerated style of the characters. The hulking warrior of Spine is physically overbearing, which fits the dynamic of the storyline, but feels out of place in such a realistic setting. The same could be said for each of the figures in the film. They stand at odds with the world around them, which creates a disjointed feeling that’s further exacerbated by the fluffy dragon model that seems to be sitting in stark relief to both extremes, infusing both into the jarring character overplayed by Awkwafina.
Disney has done some great work in the past, but Raya and the Last Dragon feels like it could have used a few more editing and animation passes to shore up its identity. For a film that hangs on the notion of trust, Disney’s seeming lack of faith in the film is evident. Not just because of the film’s rocky production history, but in how the studio forced adherence to a set company identity while letting the creatives behind the film struggle to force the rest of the production to fit into those molds. A film like this needs creative freedom to excel and while it’s an engaging, entertaining, and sometimes moving film, some of the hollowness of the formula peaks through in far too many moments.
Potentials: Animated Feature
November 23, 2021