Movie Curiosities: Raya and the Last Dragon
One more time, for the record: No movie is worth a goddamn $30 premium charge — in addition to a monthly subscription fee! — just to rent. Yes, the math might work out if you’re seeing the movie as a family or in a massive group, but even that’s a bit of a stretch. Plus, I don’t know who that $30 is going to, but it sure as hell isn’t anyone working at your local movie theater.
That said, it is equally true that no movie is worth risking your own health and safety, much less that of anyone else. Even now, going to a movie theater or any other indoor gathering space full of total strangers is a dicey proposition.
HOWEVER. I am very lucky in that I got my second COVID vaccine shot over a month ago. Though I am still at some risk of carrying the virus to spread to others (at significantly less risk with proper masking, hand-washing, and social distancing protocols), my own risk of hospitalization and death is minimal. As such, I feel not only capable but obligated to support my local businesses, and at a fraction of the cost I would’ve had to pay for streaming.
So if you’re in a position to go see this movie in a local theater, if you’re able to visit a theater without compromising your own safety or that of others, please do so. Wear a mask, maintain social distancing, and tip generously. Otherwise, wait until this summer, when Raya and the Last Dragon will stream with no upcharge.
Raya and the Last Dragon opens in the magical world of Kumandra. Once upon a time, the world was beset by the Druun, evil sprits that turned every living thing they touched into stone. The dragons rose up to fight them, but pretty much all of the dragons were turned to stone as well. Finally, the last few dragons pooled their magic into a crystal ball that drove off the Druun and restored everyone to life. Except the dragons, who remain as stone statues for some reason.
Without the dragons or the Druun, the remaining humans were left alone with the magic crystal ball, convinced that its magic caused the land nearby to flourish. Thus the humans splintered into five tribes — dubbed Tail, Spine, Talon, Fang, and Heart — and spent the next 500 years fighting each other for possession of the crystal. At present, the crystal is in possession of the Heart tribe, lorded over by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) and his young daughter, Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran).
One day, Chief Benja invites the other four tribes to a massive peace conference. It appears to be a tenuous success at first, especially as Raya makes friends with Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of the rival Fang clan. Alas, Namaari betrays her new friend in an attempt to steal the crystal for the Fang clan.
Peace talks break down further and the crystal ball is accidentally shattered into five shards — each clan quickly grabs one. The Druun come back and Raya barely manages to escape before her father is turned to stone. The Druun proceed to spend the next six years on a reign of terror, turning pretty much the entire world into a wasteland populated with stone statues.
So it’s a post-apocalyptic Disney animated film. I’m pretty sure that’s a first.
Anyway, Raya has spent the past six years chasing after rumors and fairy tales that speak of one remaining dragon that may still be in hiding. Sure enough, Raya’s very last lead pays off and she successfully summons Sisu (Awkwafina), a water dragon and the very last of her kind. Trouble is, she needs the rest of the magic crystal ball to have any chance at reconstructing it and restoring the world once again. And we’re off to the races.
To start with the elephant in the room, of course a lot of ink has already been spilled with regards to the racial aspect of the movie’s development and production. Specifically, journalists have pointed out that although the film was distinctly made with a Southeast Asian motif, the cast itself is a hodgepodge of nationalities hailing from south of the Great Wall.
Of course I’m nowhere near educated enough to comment on this issue directly. Furthermore, if anyone is offended by the casting choices (or anything else in the production), I have absolutely no right to say that they shouldn’t be offended. But with all due respect, I have to invoke the Agrabah Principle on this one.
Kumandra is not Thailand or anyplace else in Southeast Asia. In fact, there is no such place as Kumandra. There has never been any such place as Kumandra. None of the settings, characters, or story elements (to the best of my knowledge) were even pulled from existing folklore or mythology, they were solely invented by the filmmakers. And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to spend any more time or effort worrying about the cultural accuracy or portrayal of a culture that doesn’t exist.
When you get right down to it, the important thing is that this is a movie filled with characters of different skin tones for the audience to watch and identify with. It’s a cast full of non-white actors given lucrative work in a blockbuster tentpole movie, in an industry that’s still dominated by white men. It’s a movie with a setting pulled from influences outside the Medieval European fantasy aesthetic that’s been done to death. Can’t we be happy with that, at least for a little while until we’re ready to take the next step forward?
And anyway, there’s so much more to unpack here, it’s unbelievable.
First of all, Raya is single-mindedly focused on restoring the crystal ball so her dad will be brought back to life. But she hasn’t really thought it through. It’s never occurred to her that if her dad comes back, then all the other statues will come back as well. All the humans of all the tribes will start their petty squabbles again like nothing happened and we’ll be right back where we started. In fact, some of the tribes might be worse off — nobody’s likely to forget (much less forgive) what role the Heart and Fang royalty had in cracking the crystal and starting this whole mess up again to begin with.
Which brings us to Raya and Namaari. The two of them have been bitter rivals for the past six years, as Raya never forgave Namaari’s betrayal and Namaari… uh… yeah, her motivation for chasing Raya all over the world is sadly left unclear. We don’t really learn how Namaari’s betrayal affected Namaari herself, but it’s made abundantly clear that Raya was made fundamentally incapable of trusting anyone else ever again.
By contrast, Sisu has been stuck in hibernation for the past 500 years. This is the first she’s seen of Kumandra, its people, and what the past few centuries of warfare have done to them. And yet, Sisu is herself no stranger to loss or grief, as she’s the last of her kind. Sisu is visibly saddened by the memory of her fallen siblings, and determined to make sure that their sacrifice wasn’t in vain.
Specifically, Sisu was entrusted with great power by her last remaining siblings, that trust is what allowed the world to survive, and she’s determined to show humanity that same lesson. Sisu is relentlessly optimistic — to the point of naivete, really — that human beings are good and trustworthy on the whole. Naturally, this makes for an extreme contrast against Raya’s jaded viewpoint.
Raya’s relationship with Sisu is all about the general theory that trust across borders and forgiveness for past transgressions is not only possible, but necessary for the sake of peace and survival. Raya’s relationship with Namaari is about testing that theory under the most extreme stress and seeing if there’s any chance it could ever be put into process. Quite a neat little setup, really.
Of course the animation is wonderful on the whole, though I’m sorry to say that the characters looked a bit plastic at times, especially during the close-up shots in the first act. Yikes.
The action sequences are phenomenal. They’re mostly kept between Raya and Namaari, perfectly illustrating the fierce conflict and shared angst between them. The fluid animation helps a lot, and it also helps that Raya’s introduction establishes her as a shrewd and observant woman with a knack for using her surroundings to her advantage. Plus, Raya’s chain sword (her father’s, actually) makes for an awesomely versatile weapon.
Raya makes for a worthy addition to the Disney Princess lineup, Namaari proves herself a capable foil in every meaningful way, and their relationship arc is far more deeply satisfying than any love interest the filmmakers could’ve thrown at Raya. I also loved Sisu, a perfectly balanced comic relief character who was inept in some ways yet powerful in others, naive yet wise, funny with an undercurrent of pathos.
Beyond that, this is where the supporting cast starts to break down.
We need Raya, Sisu, and Namaari because they’re all central to the premise and themes. Fine. Rana needs an animal sidekick (Tuk Tuk, voiced by Alan Tudyk) because she needs transportation to the next Plot Coupon. Fair enough.
But then we bring on Boun (Izaac Wang), a self-absorbed kid, because he’s got a boat and the characters need some conveyance to get to the next jewel shard. Except that we already had Tuk Tuk for that purpose, and the animal sidekick wasn’t nearly as annoying. Whatever.
And then we get to Little Noi, an orphan infant, and her team of three miniature monkeys. The four of them go on heists together, pulling off elaborate con jobs and acrobatic chase sequences. They join the team and now we’ve really gone off the deep end.
And then we meet Tong (Benedict Wong), a hulking warrior chieftain of the Spine clan, and he comes along on the journey as well. He contributes nothing but a few lame jokes. What is this I don’t even.
I get what the filmmakers were going for. It was good of them to make sure that all five clans were represented, so that all of them could illustrate the widespread death and desolation that’s impacted all five clans and separated families all over the world. And of course it makes sense that they should all travel and work together, to demonstrate how the five tribes can cooperate.
The problem is that none of these characters — not Boun, not Tong, certainly not Noi and her team — were ever more or equally interesting than our three principal leads. Right up until the climax, they only registered as unnecessary comic relief. Even worse, they take away time that could’ve gone more toward developing Namaari, whose motivation sadly wasn’t as developed as that of the other two leads.
Then again, maybe the film needed that comic relief, because it gets pretty freaking dark in the third act. Seriously, I was amazed at some of the bold moves taken in the last half-hour or so. Though that does make it all the stranger to see everything wrapped up so inexplicably neat and tidy.
Overally, I’d say that Raya and the Last Dragon suffers for trying to do too much, but it absolutely succeeds where it needs to. The whole film looks amazing, the whole voice cast is aces, the action is fun, the setting is engaging, the protagonist is delightful, and none of the comic relief characters overstay their welcome (though some toe the line closer than others). More than anything else, I appreciate the timely message of friendship and cooperation across political boundaries, delivered in a nuanced and intricately layered way.
If you can see this movie safely in theaters, it’ll be worth the ticket price. If you have to wait until June 4th to stream it on Disney+, it’ll be worth the wait.
But is it worth the $30 premium charge? HELL NO! No movie’s worth that!
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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Raya and the Last Dragon”
It sounds like an interesting, if flawed, movie. I have yet to see it because even though vaccines are available now, I’m not about to go venturing into movie theatres while a pandemic is still in progress, and $30 is a lot to pay for what’s essentially a rental. I’ll wait until June.
As for the Agrabah Principle, which you explained here in your review of the 2019 Aladdin remake: “The culture, location, and people of Agrabah are all invented by the filmmakers, probably with a minimum of effort because none of that is important to the story. For all intents and purposes, Agrabah is a faraway fantasy land like Narnia, Middle Earth, Westeros, Azeroth, etc. Those were all based on some ridiculously heightened portrayal of medieval Europe — why can’t Agrabah be likewise based on some absurdly romanticized portrayal of “Arabia”? In any case, while I’m all in favor of greater diversity in Hollywood and I sympathize with those who so badly need and deserve better representation in mass media, I’m not inclined to care all that much about the portrayal of a fictional culture.”
I’m inclined to agree, there. Fiction is full of fantasy counterparts of Europe, Vikings, and so on, but the world builders give them their own culture and mythologies that make them different enough to be their own fictional cultures. Of course one still has to handle those cultures with care, because people will still worry about perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Star Trek has experienced this with cultures such as the Ferengi.
Anyway, it sounds like this is a film that might have included more characters than there really needed to be in it. Some animated films are like that, bringing in characters that exist because the creators couldn’t bring themselves to not include them in the movie, or save them for some other movie, and don’t really contribute much to the overall story. Disney and Don Bluth films (the latter of which provided the Trope Namer for Big Lipped Alligator Moment) as well as their imitators, had a number of such characters in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. Though usually it’s just one or two or three, and not a huge crowd (such as the animated film Animals United, or Titanic: The Legend Goes On’s cast of animated knockoffs).
Anyway, I’ll probably wait until June or later to see this film to form my own opinion, and see what I think worked and didn’t work.
On my home blog, I revisited the Agrabah Principle for a recent review of “The Last Airbender”. (By which I mean the live-action Shyamalan film, of course.) While I stand by the principle that fictional cultures are whatever the creators want them to be, the issue of racial coding is still important to consider. Coding is a vital bridge between the story and the audience, it has implications for real-world people that are very real, and it mustn’t be taken lightly.