Directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopes Estrada, Raya and the Last Dragon follows the adventures of a noble warrior princess, Raya. Set in the magical land of Kumandra, which once had dragons and humans living in harmony, is now divided and dragons are near extinct. It is up to Raya and the dragon Sisu, to unite all lands and save them from a mythical plague.
Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t nearly the best work Disney has to offer. It’s clearly a fresh and brand-new story, something we haven’t seen since Moana (2016). It’s also a step in the right direction, exploring South-East Asian culture, supported with a great and authentic cast. From a narrative standpoint, however, it feels like a script for impatient and inattentive audiences. Yes, it’s a movie for kids and that’s probably what they were going for. But after films like Big Hero 6 and Zootopia (among many others), one can’t help but feel Raya is going two steps back.
The Usual Suspects
The movie is filled with exposition and the incessant habit of explaining everything. What makes it worse is the magical land of Kumandra it is set in. This universe is further divided into multiple sub-regions all of which are intended to be distinct. The story however never really explores any of it for them to feel like actual places. Their unique cultures are also explained via voiceover. When we do get to visit them, we spend so little time that it barely makes a lasting impression. For a world so massive and dense, there is very little sense of it feeling real. Speaking of spending little time, what is supposed to be the last dragon in the world is found rather easily. All the struggle Raya goes through in finding him happens offscreen. It makes the discovery of Sisu, which is supposed to be overwhelming, feel very unexciting.
The script has a lot of ideas it wants to execute. To get there, characters need to move around and do things that might or might not make sense. I still have no idea why certain characters did what they did, apart from getting the plot where it wanted to go. It seems extremely disappointing to feel that way in a movie that’s so deeply stemmed in themes like trust in people and what divides them.
Disney has charm all right
The animation and visuals are stunning. Despite an unusual design for a dragon, Sisu’s presence feels majestic regardless. Action sequences are animated and choreographed well enough, all of it with a good touch of South-East Asia. The movie uses music and colors masterfully, creating that same feeling of wonder Disney is so good at. Both lead actors give great voice performances, particularly Awkwafina as Sisu, the last dragon. She balances moments of high emotional levity and goofiness well, making Sisu a well-rounded character to watch. Disney certainly has the right intentions with this film, taking on a very mature theme and making it accessible to kids. It’s just pulled down by a script that feels very half-hearted and lacking in nuance compared to what we’ve seen previously.
With Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney combines its usual charm with a South-East Asian cast and a world inspired by it. Despite the right intentions, it is pulled down by a script that’s lacking in nuance and very impatient with its storytelling.