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It’s difficult to make a movie, especially during a pandemic. I don’t envy anyone who’s had to piece together a project in an isolated environment, working remotely with people via video chat. Film is a medium that’s built on collaboration, not patchwork. Disney’s latest animated endeavor, Raya and the Last Dragon, feels very much cobbled together and disjointed, whether it was due to the pandemic or just a lack of focus on the story itself, with drastic changes constantly being made to seemingly fit in with audiences’ hypothetical expectations accumulated from other popular movies.
After last year’s live-action Mulan, the film is another attempt to bring fresh representation to Asian culture, which in itself is a noble endeavor, but everything about it feels stale and unoriginal.
Raya begins with a fast-talking, detail-filled exposition dump that provides us with the backstory of this universe. 500 years ago, the prosperous land of Kumandra was plagued by evil spirits called druun, which turned every person into stone. The dragons that protected the land used their magic to create a glowing orb to banish the druun and free the people from their petrified prisons. The orb, believed to bring prosperity to whoever possesses it, was fought over, thus tearing Kumandra into five tribes, with the Heart tribe serving as protector of the orb.
This narrated montage wouldn’t be that big of a deal if what immediately followed didn’t entirely hinge on our understanding of the deluge of info we’d just been given. Usually, in movies with openings like this, such as Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings or Disney’s own Moana, what follows the narrated backstory is a view of our protagonist living his or her day-to-day life, albeit amidst the context of this backstory, but typically in a way that feels only tangential to the actual ancient conflict nonetheless.
Our hero, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), is shown training with her father (Daniel Dae Kim), the Chief of Heart, and assembling a meeting with the five tribes to hopefully bring about peace and understanding between them. Raya is then tricked by Namaari (Gemma Chan) of the Fang tribe, which results in the orb breaking and the druun returning and turning most of the people into stone. Raya flees, but her father isn’t as fortunate. She hears a rumor that one of the dragons is still alive, so she sets out to find it.
I considered for a moment if, instead of one convoluted montage, we could have simply been given the backstory piece by piece over the course of the film – you know, like how they kinda do anyway. But then I realized the main issue here is the fact there’s nothing else going on BESIDES this backstory. Every piece of this film directly relates to the singular goal of protecting this glowing stone and then piecing it together once it’s been broken.
Take the aforementioned Moana, a film that feels strangely similar to this one in many ways (they even share a writer). The title character in the 2016 movie has a life outside of the lore the story is founded in. She’s a dreamer who longs to leave her island to explore the world beyond her secluded island despite the laws in place. That premise would have existed with or without the underlying mythology of a demigod who stole the heart of a goddess, thus bringing a blight to the crops and marine life in the area.
However, in Raya, our hero has a difficult time finding anything else of importance. She has no hopes and dreams other than the ones provided by the inciting action.
In a movie like this, the “savior type” should have a bigger goal than just a personal one. Otherwise, what’s the reason why no one else ever thought to set out and save the world also? What makes her so special? We know that her father is the chief who had a dream to unite the five tribes, but this quest still always feels like a personal goal to Raya: to save her father and nothing else. She and her father were never on the same page, so once he gets turned to stone, she believes that his idealist philosophies were actually flawed and is now driven by vengeance and emotion rather than the idea of fulfilling his dreams. Her quest feels businesslike rather than extraordinary and special.
This plagues the title character herself, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who the audience has a hard time connecting with in the first place. Not only does she lack a certain charisma, but she also never seems to have any thoughts or beliefs or dreams. She exists as purely functional. She quickly finds the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), and together they travel to the rest of the tribes to try to find each of the remaining pieces of the orb so they can put it back together and get rid of the druun once and for all.
When you think about it, Raya and the Last Dragon almost suffers from having what you would call an “idiot plot” – one that wouldn’t exist if just one person wasn’t an idiot. Here, if any of the other tribes were simply informed that the orb doesn’t bring prosperity, but that it actually is in place to save the lives of everybody, then perhaps these people wouldn’t feel the need to steal it. And if Raya’s father spent half a minute explaining any of this to them, then maybe they would believe him. As far as we know, he doesn’t, and they don’t.
The promise of adventure is actually exciting and we start to get on board despite being indifferent to the conflict that had already been happening. However, this kind of sketching is easier said than done. The film takes story notes from Avengers: Endgame, but where the characters in the Marvel movie face a unique obstacle with each of the Infinity Stones they need to recover, the storyboarding for Raya and the Last Dragon feels uninspired. Characters never face any real obstacles that seem worthy of the journey they take to get there, or to justify watching a movie about them doing so.
In fact, the trek hardly feels treacherous at all, with each stage in their quest being either too easy or too rushed in the face of difficulty, riddled with convenient Deus ex machinas to get the job done. It’s tempting to believe this film could have benefitted from being a bit longer, perhaps with more fleshed out and connected plot points. Or maybe even a series?
Raya and the Last Dragon looks more like a video game than it does a movie – in both story arc and aesthetic. Working from home during the pandemic, the animators constructed characters that feel like they’re from in-game cut sequences, jutting between cartoon and realism that edges dangerously close to the Uncanny Valley in the way they look and how their faces move.
The voice-acting also doesn’t work, perhaps because of the unconventional work environment and last-minute casting and story changes, but nonetheless the dialogue feels like it’s read off of the script or influenced by a preschool cartoon. Other than Awkwafina and Benedict Wong, who plays a fearsome warrior of one of the tribes, the performances often take us out of the believability of the story on a ground level, even early on before we’ve settled into any of the logical and fundamental flaws of the script itself.
It’s difficult enough to become invested in a story based on a lore we don’t fully understand, but it’s nearly impossible to do so when we’re not engaged in the storytelling that follows. There’s the potential for a very fun movie at the core of Raya and the Last Dragon, filled with adventure and excitement, but it never gets there. The story can’t quite escape from its mechanical plot markers which prevent any natural flow. And then even when things occasionally do become enjoyable, we’re taken out of it with a forced poignancy that continues to burden our characters, as though they’re constantly trying to not break down and sob.