Before we get into the review, I want to address something. Certain commenters (who shall, by virtue of me being the bigger mouse, remain nameless) stated in my last review that I have been “negative” and “harsh” on the Disney canon of late.
Let’s call this out for what it is: VICTIM BLAMING.
It’s a pernicious practice, and I will not tolerate it particularly if I’m the victim. Have I been harsh on Disney recently? Scathing? Even cruel? Yes. But who threw the first punch?
Raya is a historically significant film and definitely represents a demarcation point in the history of the canon. This is, after all, the first canon movie to go straight to streaming (although it did receive a restricted theatrical run). It also, to me, represents the irrevocable “shrinking” of movies. There are no big releases any more, there are no big unifying cultural moments. A few years ago I remember walking home one night and hearing a group of girls on the other side of the road spontaneously bursting into a chorus of “Let it Go” but it kinda feels like that kind of culturally ubiquitous megahit can’t happen any more. There’s too much content. We’re all watching different things. A movie being released in the cinema was kind of an imprimatur of significance, but the cinema might not have survived the decade even without Covid shoving it into a shallow grave. Gloria Swanson was right, she was just off by half a century.
Sorry, this is all frightfully maudlin. I guess for me Raya is less a movie and more a totem of a strange and tragic moment in history.
Also, I don’t really want to talk about it because it sucks and apparently that’s a dangerous opinion. Lindsay Ellis talked shit about this movie and I’m pretty sure she’s dead now or in witness protection or something.
Anyway. Raya and the Last Dragon. Thank you Covid, for sparing me the price of a cinema ticket. I don’t care what they say, ya ain’t all bad.
So before we begin, we should probably address the thorny issue of South East Asian representation in this film. Well, what’s your opinion? Good. I agree totally and there’s no further need to discuss the matter. On we go.
The movie opens with our heroine, Raya, riding a giant pillbug named Tuk Tuk through a great wilderness filled with mysterious statues. It is a stunning display of just what Disney’s CGI is now capable of.
The skin, the hair, the way the sunlight is just hazy enough to let you know the air is filled with dust. I’ve mentioned before that it’s somewhat dispiriting to live in a time when even the most mediocre animation studio has access to computers so advanced that by rights they should be allowed to vote and can crank out jaw-droppingly beautiful imagery. But Raya shows right off the bat why Disney are still on the God-tier of American animation. And then the movie has to open its stupid fucking mouth:
“I know what you’re thinking. A lone rider. A dystopian world.”
This is what, frankly, has absolutely baffled me about the response to Raya:
This is a terribly written movie. The dialogue sucks, the jokes are awful, the story is built on a card house of bad choices and and and…sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Okay. That opening line. Why is it so bad? Well one, it makes no sense. There’s nothing “dystopian” about the landscape around Raya, it looks fucking idyllic. I mean sure, it’s a little grim once you know what those statues actually are but we don’t at this point. Secondly, okay imagine this:
CHARACTERS. DON’T. KNOW. WHAT. GENRE. THEY’RE. IN.
Having Raya just coming out and saying that this is a dystopia…real people don’t talk like that. I can’t buy her now as a real person actually living in this world. In fact, so much of the dialogue has this deeply phoney quality that makes it impossible to relate to any of the characters. Raya then tells us that to understand what happened to this pleasant and verdant hellscape we must travel “500 years ago”. She tells us that this land used to be known as Kumandra and we see an admittedly beautiful stylised map that demonstrates with incredible fidelity exactly how rivers don’t work.
Kumandra was a vibrant happy land where all peoples lived in harmony under the benevolent rule of a race of water dragons until the Druun appeared, a physical manifestation of Disney’s artists collectively failing to give a shit any more. I will go into my feelings on the Druun later, let’s press on. The Druun spread across the land turning people into stone. The dragons tried to stop them and were also turned into stone. Finally, when all hope seemed lost, the day was saved by the last surviving dragon, Sissu.
Sissu channelled all her power into a magical gem and blasted the Druun away, restoring the petrified people but not the dragons and leaving nothing but Sissu’s stone behind. Okay, got it, all caught up. Movie start now?
Raya says that this should have been “this big, inspirational moment” (for sure) but instead the people of Kumandra formed into five seperate nations and battled each other for control of the gem. But that’s not how the world broke because to understand how that happened we have to have another flashback to when Raya was just a little girl.
I feel like I’ll need to take a break every now and then to remind you that everything, EVERYTHING, that is happening on screen is absolutely smurges. Technically, this is just an amazingly accomplished film. But ultimately it feels like a faberge egg, a shiny, beautiful surface with an empty, hollow core.
Anyway Raya, with the help of a tiny Tuk Tuk, is trying to break into the temple where Sissu’s stone is held. She gets to the inner sanctum but is stopped by a masked man with a kickass chainsword. They battle and he defeats her but she does manage to get her toe into the inner circle where the stone is kept. It’s then revealed that this is Benja, Raya’s father and the chieftain of the land of Heart. He tells her that she has passed the test and that she is now a guardian of the Stone of Sissu.
He then tells her that the other lands are on their way to Heart and orders Raya to show him her best exposition skills. Raya then rattles of the names of the other four kingdoms and what their basic deal is:
Fang: Undercut Cat Ladies.
Tail: Desert Bastards.
Spine: Ice Klingons.
Talon: River Bastards.
Benja says they will be dealing with the other tribes by serving them soup and Raya chimes in “We’re going to poison them?!”
Benja explains that he’s actually invited the other tribes for a banquet with the hopes of unifying them once again as Kumandra. The other tribes arrive and things are pretty tense at first. But Raya strikes up a friendship with the Fang princess Namaari and before you know it they’re talking about how they both love dragons and hating wearing fancy clothes “on the regular”.
Children don’t talk like this. And if they do? To hell with ’em.
So now’s a good time to talk about my single biggest issue with this movie. This is a movie about trust, and the difficulty in giving it to people who’ve already hurt us. All well and good. And it explores this theme through the relationship between Raya and Namaari. And that’s the problem, their relationship before Namaari betrays Raya is nothing. They had brunch and found they have some common interests and engaged in incredibly cringey What the Young People Talk Like dialogue. This betrayal is what sets Raya on the path of being an embittered loner and and…like…she knew this chick for FIVE MINUTES.
Here’s what I would have done: establish that this banquet of Benja’s has been an annual thing for several years now. Have it that Benja has been slowly and patiently using diplomacy to bring the tribes together. AND you establish that his closest ally in this has been Virana, Namaari’s mother and the chieftain of Fang. Fang and Heart have been moving closer for years and Namaari has spent so much time in Heart that Raya thinks of her almost as a sister. THEN, during the banquet you have Raya overhear some Fang soldiers talking about stealing the Stone of Sissu. Horrified, Raya goes to Virana and Namaari, thinking that these soldiers are clearly just rogue agents. But, it turns out that Virana has just been playing a years long game to gain Benja’s trust and steal the stone. And worse, Namaari is in on it. NOW we’ve got a betrayal with some actual meat on its bones.
Anyway, Fang tries to steal the gem which leads to all five tribes having a ruck which ends with the gem smashed in pieces on the floor. Suddenly, the Druun attack and most of Heart, including Benja, are turned to stone. Before he’s petrified, he gives Raya a shard of the stone and tells her not to lose faith in people and then pushes her off a bridge which is sending mixed messages, frankly.
Six years later, Raya is Mad Maxing it through the desert of Tail on a now massive Tuk Tuk. So, I will say this for Raya and the Last Dragon: as a movie it’s a hell of a video game, and I’m not just talking about how, with its transforming divine dragons with magic stones it would be right at home in the Fire Emblem series. Raya riding Tuk Tuk through the desert looks like an awesome open-world vehicle section. Her chain-sword looks like a really fun weapon/traversal mechanic. The other tribes all provide an interesting mix of mooks with different fighting styles. And then of course there’s the central quest of finding all five gem pieces, as computer gamey a plot as you could imagine. Hell, each gem even unlocks different abilities to open up previously unexplored areas of the map. Raya feels like watching a computer game, and I know in this era of Let’s Play videos some of you have been fooled into thinking that that’s a fun time. I know, because I’m an eldest sibling we invented that shit.
Anyway, Raya sees a beached ship in the distance and makes a beeline for it before being attacked by a Druun. Okay, let’s talk about the Druun.
What is this phoned in, half-assed, slap-dash, zero-effort bullshit? A lot of work went into crafting Kumandra, from the architecture to the clothing of the various tribes. So I’m really baffled why anyone thought having the movie’s main villains be utterly generic, glowing-purple blob things was good enough. We have reached the nadir of modern Disney villainy.
No personality. No emotion. No style. No substance. No class. No cool factor. Just vague, undefined threat.
Raya is able to see the Druun off with her shard of Sissu’s stone and enters the shipwreck. She performs a ritual and prays to Sissu to return so that she can restore her father. We get no explanation as to where she learned this ritual and I actually really like that. The movie trusts that you can piece together that Raya’s been off having adventures for the last six years, trying to figure out how to bring Sissu back. Anyway, this works and the world’s dragon population goes from 0 to 1. Which is good, because if Raya and the Last Dragon was just Raya that would be flagrant false advertising.
Raya’s joy is tempered somewhat by the realisation that Sissu is less a mighty, all-powerful dragon deity and more like the nervous intern who got left in charge of the office after all the staff came down with flu. So again, I reiterate that (with the exception of the Druun) all the visuals in this are top notch and Sissu is no exception. I love the design, the texture of the fur and particularly the motion. Buuuuuuut…
So as a wise-cracking blue magical sidekick creature who’s also a dragon there are obvious parallels to be drawn, if one were so inclined, to both Genie and Mushu. But here’s the problem. No disrespect to Awkwafina who’s a very talented comedian and who’s vagina (I have it on excellent authority) is approximately 5000% better than a penis. But she’s not Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy at the peak of their comedic powers which means she has to rely on the script for her comedic character to actually be…funny.
Yeah, we’re in trouble.
Anyway, Raya explains to Sissu everything that’s been happening and they resolve to get the five gem pieces, crazy glue ’em back together and use Sissu’s magic to blast the Druun away to the dread CGI assets folder from whence they came. First order of business is to find the Tail chieftain who’s holed herself up in a booby trapped cave. I do like the way the movie shows without telling that, while the other kingdoms are more or less holding their own against the Druun, Tail has just fallen apart, to the point that their chief ended up as a hermit living in a cave. It makes sense, the Druun are repelled by water so obviously the desert kingdom is going to be hit hardest. They get the stone without too much trouble and Sissu gets a new upgrade, the ability to transform into a people for stealth missions. Suddenly, they’re interrupted by the arrival of Namaari with troops from Fang.
Actually, she greets Raya by saying “what’s dripping?”
Namaari asks Raya why she’s stealing gem pieces and Raya responds “what can I say, bling is my thing.”
Raya and Sissu manage to escape and are pursued across the desert by Namaari and her troops. They find a floating restaurant run by a child entrepenuer named Captain Boun and convince him to sail them to Talon for the next item on the fetch quest.
Okay, do you know what other Disney canon movie Raya reminds me of the most? Go on, guess. Then scroll down.
Like Cauldron, Raya is a fantasy quest movie that suffers from severe character bloat. Every tribe Raya visits leads to her picking up a new party member (or FOUR) and by the end the team consists of Raya, Tuk Tuk, Sissu, Boun, a Spine warrior named Tong, a sociopathic baby from Talon named Noi and her entourage of three “ongis” which are basically monkeys.
NINE CHARACTERS. THAT IS TAKING THE ABSOLUTE PISS.
What possible reason could the movie have for having that many oh why do I even bother asking…
Anyway, Raya goes into Talon to try and steal the gem shard from the chief but gets waylaid when she’s mugged by Noi and the ongis.
She gets the gem shards back and asks Noi if she’d like some honest work, by which she means “robbing the chief of Talon”. So…less “honest work” and more “impressing a vulnerable child into even more dangerous crime”. Meanwhile, Sissu decides that the best way to get the gem shard is to offer the chief a gift and just ask him nicely. Not understanding how money works, she just tries to buy stuff on credit until a nice old lady intervenes on her behalf with some angry shopkeepers.
With Noi providing a distraction, Raya breaks into the palace only to discover that the guy she thought was the Talon chief has already been turned to stone and that the new chief is actually that nice old lady who is now in the process of feeding Sissu to the Druun unless she spills her guts on the location of the other shards. Raya arrives, grabs the shard from the old lady, rescues Sissu and they race back to the boat and head for Spine.
In Spine they meet Tong who’s basically the last unpetrified Spine warrior which is weird because Spine is covered in snow which you’d think would repel the Druun but whatever.
Last item on the agenda is Fang’s shard and the gang discuss how best to get it. Raya wants a daring sneak attack, but Sissu (who has not yet internalised that people are trash) instead outlines a plan whereby she simply asks Namaari nicely for the gem shard, gets it and then they become best friends for ever and dance off into the sunset.
The massed throng of supporting characters are dubious about this plan because they don’t like those Fang bastards for the same reason I don’t like Newt Gingrich: they basically destroyed the entire world. Sissu wants to believe that Namaari actually wants to restore the world just as much as they do but Raya shoots her down.
So Sissu flies Raya to Heart to see the statues of her dragon siblings and tells her the story of how she was able to defeat the Druun because her family trusted in her. Raya decides to give Namaari a chance and sends Noi and the ongis to deliver a message to her. Namaari shows up at the meeting spot with the Fang gem shard but oh noes…
Sissu tries to talk Namaari out of it but when Raya sees Namaari’s finger tightening on the trigger she lashes out with her chain sword which causes Namaari to fire and she hits Sissu who falls off the cliff but we don’t see the body but whatever, I’m sure she’s really dead.
This causes all the water in the world to…go away. I mean, there are still clouds in the sky and moisture in peoples bodies but…just, the rivers and stuff. It makes sense, shut up. You’re just jaded. This causes the Druun to show up and start turning people to stone left and right like the White Witch at a Christmas Fair. Namaari is devastated because, to quote Oscar Wilde; to cause one apocalypse may be regarded as misfortune, to cause two looks like carelessness.
Raya is pissed and, fair is fair, the sequence of her storming into Fang, sword in hand, using her stone to curbstomb Druun left and right is frickin’ awesome. She finds Namaari in the throne room where her mother has already been turned to stone and the two throw down.
While that’s going down, the great mass of Raya’s sidekicks descend on Fang like the Rohirrim riding down a hill and try to save as many people as possible with the now fading gem shards. Raya defeats Namaari and is about to give her an even closer shave when Namaari points out that Raya is just as culpable for Sissu’s death for refusing to trust her when she was pointing a crossbow right at her (I swear to God I had this exact same bullshit from a girlfriend in college). They put aside their differences and try to stop the Druun but end up surrounded by them along with Boun, Tong, Baby Noi, the three ongi, Tuk Tuk, Sammy the Happy Squid, Mr Bumple, The Incredible Zee, Fourth US Vice President George Clinton, One Eyed Maurice, Strong Jim, King of Drum, Many Waters Chieftain of the Arapahoe Tribe, Stan Lee, Juggling Billy, all 101 Dalmatians, Michael Jordan, The Great Gazoo and Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe.
When all hope seems lost, Raya realises that it’s trust that makes the stones work so she tells the others that they have to let Namaari have the gem shards and trust her to do the right thing. They’re leery, obviously, but one by one they give her the shards and are turned to stone. As there are approximately three hundred of them, this scene obviously takes around six hours. Namaari assembles the stone but it doesn’t work.
But then it does!
Druun gone, dragons back, Sissu still alive, everyone no longer stone, Kumandra reunited, happy ever after all live, movie over is.
While it’s nowhere near as aggressively obnoxious as Wreck It Ralph 2, Raya fails to even meet the standard of Frozen 2 and that is a problem. It suffers from many of the same problems as Frozen 2 like character bloat and often rote, derivative world-building. But Frozen 2 at least had a decent songbook and good writing on a scene to scene basic even if it was structurally weak. After three lacklustre entries I have to call it: the canon’s in trouble.
Disney have now pretty much perfected the art of hanging human skin. Okay, let me rephrase that. The skin textures and how they hang of the structures of the bodies is phenomenal. The landscapes are gorgeously rendered and the movie is an absolute treat for the eyes.
I went back and forth on this. There’s a lot I really like about Raya. The visual design is absolutely kickass. And I do like the moody, troubled adult Raya as a character (the young Raya is honestly one of the most obnoxious child characters I’ve seen in many an age). That said, this a character that feels market tested to an inch of her life. She’s a little bit of Korra, a little bit of Adora. She’s quirky, but badass, broody but goofy, tough but vulnerable. I honestly can’t figure out if she’s a complex rounded character or just a collection of traits that tested will with the target demographic. I feel that when they were designing this character someone was looking over the animator’s shoulder going…
I am annoyed at how annoyed I am by the Druun.
Supporting Characters: 06/20
Fine, the baby’s cute.
No songs, but James Newton Howard’s soundtrack has some nice moments.
FINAL SCORE: 51%
NEXT UPDATE: 02 September 2021
NEXT TIME: Okay, so…I may have some rather big writing projects coming down the line. But (but!) provisionally (provisionally!) I want to dedicate Shortstember to Disney TV Animation. First up?
Let’s. Get. DANGEROUS.