Raya and the Last Dragon
The newest Disney princess seems to be on creative autopilot
Due to COVID-19 the manner in which films are released is changing in ways that could be seismic in the future. No one is sure if things will return back to normal in terms of distribution, and as each film studio debuts their own streamer (Paramount+ just became available), having to choose between placing a film in an exclusive theatrical release or straight to streaming will be frequent. Disney has tried experimenting with a couple of strategies; with the live-action remake of Mulan (2020) viewers had to have a subscription to the streamer Disney+ and then pay another premium fee ($30 in the US) to be able to watch on release day. In December 2020, with the release of Soul (2020), Disney decided to simply drop it on their streamer, no extra fees asked. Now the “premium” sign is back with Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), and Disney is perhaps showing their hand at how it is making these distribution choices.
Raya and the Last Dragon is the newest Disney princess animated story. It takes place in a fantasy land heavily inspired by medieval Southeastern Asian cultures. The world has been divided by warring tribes, who hoard pieces of a magical dragon-made gem, which keeps them safe from dark beings that turn people into stone. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), is the princess of one of the tribes, and she seeks out the hiding place of the last known dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), in order to gain its help.
Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest film from Disney Animated Studios, and the first since Frozen II (2019). As with recent Disney princess films, there is a clear effort to create inclusion by changing the setting of films regionally. We previously played around joyfully with Polynesian culture in Moana (2016), finally had an African American lead in The Princess and the Frog (2009) and incurred into Chinese culture with both Mulan films. The change of scenery certainly creates grounds to imbue stories with a rich mythology and history, and there is a certain care to do that in Raya and the Last Dragon, specifically with the production design and aesthetic look of the film.
With each passing Disney animated film I am once again amazed at the technical prowess of the animation. In Raya, the animators clearly want to show off their skills, and thus place our characters, and their hairy manes in wet environments, so that we can be in awe at how the film renders wet hair. Animators have clearly taken care in creating culturally respectful and accurate representations of Southeast Asian culture, and I was especially taken with how realistic and appetizing the food was created. It certainly made me want to order in some Pad Thai.
However, Raya begins to falter when considering its actual story and narrative. The confusion that the filmmakers and studio must have felt in crafting this film is apparent by looking at how many people were hired in top jobs. There are four credited directors of the film and eight writers. With so many leaders and creative visions, it would have been easy for the film to shatter into separate pieces. Surprisingly, Raya holds itself together tonally, but it seems to do so by playing heavily into the Disney-film formula.
The narrative is incredibly generic, if you’ve seen any other Disney princess films. There is a traumatic event relating to the princess’ parents that motivates our hero, a cute side-kick (to sell plush toys), a comedic side-kick, and a predictable and consequence-free finale. There is a clear struggle to introduce audiences into this new fantasy world. The exposition dump at the beginning goes back 500 years in order to give us context, and a 20 minute prologue is needed after that to provide the setting of the plot. Throughout the film we constantly cut back to visual aids, detailing which tribe is which, and what important information our characters need next. The eight writers struggled to structure their story, delivering a finished product that looks like the walkthrough of a bland videogame. There is a forced collection of items, new powers added with each “level” that is completed, and even defeated villains become “collectible” allies. The fact that you couldn’t play the stale video game plot only made Raya all the more disappointing.
The voicework somewhat salvages a sense of distinction for the characters. Tran is convincing as the titular character, and she somehow makes the delivery of some very cheesy mid-battle lines land. Awkwafina is equally solid as Sisu, she goes on a whirl of attempted comedy (whether improvised or scripted is anyone’s guess), which is largely hit or miss, but whose hits help spruce up slow moments.
In conclusion, I think I’ve come to a deduction of how Disney makes choices regarding the release of its films. The likes of Soul, are bound to have good word-of-mouth that can help bring subscribers to Disney+; but the recent Mulan and Raya lack the necessary charisma and flair. Undoubtedly, Disney is betting on cashing in big on those that dare venture into watching the likes of Raya and Mulan, knowing that Soul will largely hold up by its own strength. Raya and the Last Dragon is not a bad film by any means, it simply felt flat and creatively on autopilot. There wasn’t a particular story that was begging to be told here, rather that Disney felt it needed to fill a princess quota. Looking forward I will be wary of when I see Disney announce that a new film is coming to their streamer with a “premium” fee, it might be a harbinger of a film’s quality.