A Grand, Mystical Fetch Quest — Raya and the Last Dragon
Welcome to the first review for the official 2021 cinematic canon! Yes, I’ve been doing reviews ever since the calendar turned over nearly three months ago, but all of those were 2020 movies that had delayed releases (strategically and by circumstance) and/or are competing in this year’s Academy Awards. If 2020 had been normal, they would have all been released in 2020. This is the first film I’m reviewing that is 100% a 2021 release. And it’s one that will stick in my memory for a long time to come, as it’s the first movie I’ve gotten to see in a theatre in exactly one year.
The 59th film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, Raya and the Last Dragon is a bit of a departure from the traditional Disney Princess formula, and it contains some absolutely gorgeous animation and character development. It’s not a perfect film by any means. In fact there are a couple glaring problems. But on the whole it’s enjoyable, and given my emotional state when I got to see it, I’m feeling a bit more forgiving than I otherwise would.
In a land called Kumandra (inspired by Southeast Asia), surrounding a river shaped like a dragon, the titular tribal princess, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, narrates a ton of backstory about the history of her country and how it became divided due partially to her own naivete. I’ll admit it’s a confused start to the film, because it begins with the teenage/young adult form of Raya riding through the desert on what looks like a giant motorized ball and talking about a dystopian future, but the entire motif of the past and present of the film suggests that it could have only existed hundreds of years ago (though obviously with the magical elements and hybrid animals, it could never have actually existed). There’s no steampunk here (thank God), no hints at advanced technology, so I don’t get why the script has her frame things as dystopian. But that’s a mild gripe at worst.
Raya’s legend speaks of the dragon Sisu, who used her magic to defeat a creeping menace called the Druun, which turns people to stone. Sisu won the day, but every other dragon was also petrified, and she could not save them, so she went into exile, leaving behind a gem containing her powers. In the aftermath, Kumandra split into five separate tribes, all named after the relative parts on the dragon-shaped river on which they reside. When Raya’s father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), invites all the tribes to broker peace, she befriends Namaari (Jona Xiao as a child, Gemma Chan as an adult), daughter of the Fang tribe’s chief, Virana (Sandra Oh), who immediately betrays her and tries to steal the gem. In the ensuing fight, the gem breaks into five pieces, each of which is taken by a different chief, and the Druun returns to lay waste to the land once again.
As an adult, Raya takes it upon herself to find Sisu and reunite the gem pieces in hopes of driving back the Druun once again and reviving her father. Namaari pursues her, wanting to win glory for Fang. Going off a comment Namaari made when they were kids about Sisu possibly hiding in a river, Raya spends six years searching every river in the land with her giant animal friend, Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), a mixture of an armadillo and a pill bug.
At the very last possible river, at the very tip of “Tail” territory, Raya locates Sisu and summons her. Sisu (voiced by Nora Lum, aka Misspelled Bottled Water) reveals that she has no particular skills, and that her magic was concentrated from her still-frozen siblings. Her only “power” is being an excellent swimmer, though she can channel the gem’s magic through contact. She is a water dragon (which I guess is sort of on-brand for the actress), and as they learn, the Druun are repelled by water, so at least there’s that. The two then set out to visit each region of the fragmented Kumandra to recover the gem pieces.
If this feels like the loose plot of a video game, you’re not alone. At its core, the story is basically a giant RPG fetch quest, with Raya as the hero and Namaari as the occasional boss battle antagonist. Sisu and the companions Raya picks up along the way are essentially props and NPCs.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it’s presented properly, and Disney’s animators knock it out of the park here. The landscapes and environments are wonderfully detailed and crisp. At times I was reminded of the Legend of Zelda series, given that each region of Kumandra has its own distinct environment. Tail is a desert, Talon is a water level, Spine is a snowy, mountainous area, Heart (Raya’s home) is a lush jungle, and Fang has the appearance of an enclave city surrounded by lowlands. This gives the animators a ton of creative space to work with, bringing each one to life in its own unique way. Sisu’s influence also has a massively cool effect on the animation, as her liquid powers cause waterways to flow towards her regardless of its normal direction. We see this from one of the first moments of the film, as young Raya climbs a staircase towards the shrine where her father guards the gem, and the water goes up the stairs with her. And it looks like real water, which is an achievement in itself. Combine all this with the hair rendering technology that just won a Sci-Tech Oscar, and you’ve got some of the strongest non-Pixar Disney animation this side of Frozen.
There’s also something to be said for character development here, as Namaari is not a one-note villain. From her initial betrayal to her entire pursuit of Raya, she does so with somewhat noble intentions, wanting to improve life for her tribe. There’s nothing sinister about what she’s doing, just a different perspective, which makes her a strong antagonist without being evil, a degree of nuance not often seen in Disney films. As the story goes on, we even learn that she has genuine affection for Raya as a person and rival, and a reverence for the dragons of legend that gives her internal conflict.
As for Raya, there’s no song about longing for more (there are really no songs at all, save a brief tribal chant and the requisite pop track during the credits), there’s never a hint of a romantic entanglement or the need for a prince to save her. But more importantly, she has imperfections. I’ve mentioned this before as being a real problem with depictions of young heroines in recent film history. Normally they’re not allowed to have flaws, because somehow executives think that dilutes the “girl power” vibe they’re trying to exploit for box office. But here, Raya is a somewhat flawed character. She asserts expertise and authority she doesn’t have. She makes mistakes in judgment. The whole plot happens because she trusts people too easily. These are things that she learns from as the film goes on, and that helps us root for her where other characters of her ilk are easily dismissed. The more dimensions you can give your leads, the better.
All that said, though, the script is a mess, and Sisu is a wasted character. I have my own problems with MBW as an actress, rapper, and comedian (in that she can’t act or rap, and she isn’t funny), but the way she plays Sisu is painfully bad. Her three-pack-a-day voice is grating in the extreme, and she’s trying way too hard to be a spastic, goofy sidekick, a la the Genie or Mushu, but it just doesn’t work. For Mushu, he was always meant to be a bungler, and Eddie Murphy’s shtick eventually overstayed its welcome, basically right around the second Shrek movie. As for the Genie, that was Robin Williams in peak form, and MBW isn’t even in the same universe as Williams’ fucking shadow as far as comedy skills are concerned. I’m not saying she can’t get there, but she’s nowhere close in the here and now.
Sisu is set up as a revered figure throughout the entire first act, and it’s an admittedly interesting choice to then reveal her as not all she’s built up to be, that she’s basically unskilled and has no confidence. But if that’s the way you’re going to go, stick with it. Have her make a mistake or two while still being genuine and earnest in her role in the quest. Instead we get an extended bit where in her human form (one of the gems has her sister’s transformation magic in it) she just waddles and bounces from shop to shop declaring that she’s buying tons of shit on credit, and it just goes nowhere. It’s not only not funny, it’s annoying and pointless. There’s subverting expectations, and then there’s outright trolling. Sisu’s slapstick characterization, and MBW’s voice performance, completely derail any attempt to take her seriously, to the point that when she finally gets with the fucking program, I just don’t care.
And sadly, the screenplay is full of this nonsense. It’s as if they wrote all the jokes thinking they were making a TikTok video. And while Sisu is the worst offender (seriously I got flashbacks to her character from Crazy Rich Asians trying to take selfies all over the mansion), every major character falls victim. The Captain Planet-esque pals they pick up in each region (I know it’s meant to be a message against tribalism, but come the hell on) all have obnoxious one-liners, except for Noi, who’s a baby and doesn’t talk, but her whole bit is Boss Baby-like fight scenes with a bunch of monkeys. Even Raya and Namaari aren’t immune, as a discussion of jewelry leads Raya to quip, “I’m all about the bling.” And then of course there are the bugs with exploding butts, so we get fart jokes and MBW screaming “BOOTAY!” a bunch of times. Stop. It!
It’s extremely telling where the level of humor was in this script just by listening to the crowd in the theatre. With reduced capacity (25–40%), you could hear the reactions of the adults and families all around. For the entirety of the film, you could not hear a single laugh coming from anyone over the age of eight. Not. Fucking. Once. The only time I even remotely chuckled was during the credits where, just before the “Production Babies” were listed, there’s a special dedication to the hundreds of artists who worked from home during the pandemic to make this movie happen. The message bemoans all the virtual meetings they had to go through by adding the parenthetical, “Dude, you’re still on mute!” Having experienced this very real aspect of corporate America over the last year, that got a snicker. Nothing else.
That’s because this movie didn’t need to be funny. And every time it tries, it drags the whole thing down. This movie has a decent message, some great character development, and some absolutely mind-blowing animation in service of a basic plot that the youngest of viewers can understand because it so closely resembles the adventure video games we all know and love. That’s all you needed, and it makes for a really good film. It’s just a shame we had to waste so much time on a terrible voice performance with even worse jokes to knock the quality down several pegs. I’d still recommend this movie, especially as a way to ease yourself back into the theatrical experience. It just sucks that it commits a self-own while trying to be more than it needed to be. At times the film is utterly brilliant. At others it smacks of “Too Many Cooks” Syndrome.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever traveled to Southeast Asia? Are you a “dragon nerd”? Let me know!