Hi! It’s Annie!
Over the weekend I finally got around to watching ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ even though it’s already been out for weeks. Going into this I had fairly high expectations. Most of this was because I watched footage of the ‘D23’ (Disney convention in Anaheim) event where they announced it and I automatically fell in love with the design of Sisu. I actually attended a D23 event in the past, so I might eventually talk about D23 in another post, but I’m not sure because it was both fun and not my thing so I don’t think I would go back. But the way they talked about this movie made me excited, especially because it’s an all Asian cast with Asian creatives and all the art they showed was beyond beautiful. Admittedly, my standards might have been raised to an unfair level. But there was a lot about this movie that I appreciated! So, I’m going to go over what I liked about this movie and didn’t because, as always, I have a lot of thoughts. LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD!
The World Building: Seriously, this movie is gorgeous in every sense of the word. And not just because of the animation. The story separates the people in the movie into five clans based off of parts of the dragon: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail. Each of these clans is introduced to the audience through a beautiful animation style that shows how unique each place is. The world feels like someplace you can actually go, which may or may not be Disney hinting at something with the Disney parks, but I suppose we’ll see how the movie ages. Everything feels very well thought out and put together and every place you go in this movie has beauty in it’s own way. It would be nice if all movies could have this much focus on world building.
Sisu: Sisu is so incredibly lovable. From her blue fur that is animated so realistically to her pure heart, she was definitely the best character in the film. You just couldn’t help but fall in love with her personality and her brand of comic relief. It’s not often we get to see a role like this in a Disney film that actually belongs to a female comedian. We definitely need more of that in Disney. Sisu is a bright, funny, character that livens up everything around her. Sure, she couldn’t necessarily trust everyone, but her messages on trust are beautiful and incredibly important. Sisu was probably my favorite part of this movie, I seriously just couldn’t get enough of her.
Raya and her Dad: Though her father (voiced by the absolutely amazing Daniel Dae Kim), turns to stone pretty early in the movie; the relationship between Raya and him is set up so well that you really feel the loss along with Raya. Her goal to eventually get her father back is one that the audience is completely behind because they want him back too. Daniel Dae Kim pours so much love into the role of the father and his adorable nickname for Raya (Dewdrop) only makes you love his character and the relationship even more.
The Dragons: All of the powers and the design for each dragon is unique to them and you connect with them through Sisu and her backstory. Those are her brothers and sisters, and they are mentioned by her so much throughout the movie that you can’t forget them. I feel like most movies like this will mention the loss that a main character has had, but will forget to make the main character mention the loss, or at least are afraid of bringing it up too much. This strikes a perfect balance as the memory of Sisu’s brothers and sisters naturally comes up when she receives their powers throughout the film. The other Dragons are beautifully animated and much better explored than I could have hoped.
The Message of Trust: I think for many of us it can be difficult to trust other people, especially now. And I also think that for ages the media has portrayed characters that trust easily as too naive. Though Sisu is originally seen as naive in this film, it is revealed that her willingness to trust isn’t something to be scoffed at. Though the movie also addresses that it is dangerous to trust absolutely everyone, it encourages viewers to open themselves up to trusting people. The message of trust comes off really well without beating the viewers over the head with it too much.
The Fighting: The fighting choreography for this film is gorgeous. It is action packed, fun to watch, and obviously the result of the hard work of animators as well as expert swordsmen. Did I mention that this is gorgeous?
Raya: For a main character, it really didn’t feel like the story focused on her. Sisu’s storyline felt much more integral to the plot and ties in much more with the world building. They try to make Raya important because of her supposedly “breaking the world”, but it wasn’t entirely her fault nor does she seem to completely blame herself for it. When it comes down to it she’ll always choose to blame Namaari, who was only doing what she was told to do in the situation. Raya’s goal to get her father back and establish the unity of the dragon clans is noble, but for much of the movie it is Sisu who actually believes in the possibility of Kumandra rather than Raya. Sisu feels like the main character, and much of Raya’s character development is shoved into the final moments of the movie when she finally listens to Sisu and learns to trust. She’s a good character, but it does not feel as though she is the main character.
The Side Characters: I felt like every character was interesting, but none of them had any character development. I enjoyed them while they were on screen and felt like they had a lot of potential, but the movie was too packed for that. As a result, many of them ended up feeling useless to the plot. I just wish we could have gotten more of them.
The Narration: The movie starts out with narration and often also uses it to jump around the map. This is used extremely inconsistently and at one point is never used again. The narration didn’t feel needed to begin with, but the inconsistency makes it so much worse. It really doesn’t help that often times the narration felt jarring and had the air of the writers not knowing what else to do to push along the story.
Some of the Cast: This movie has gotten backlash for not having a lot of Southeast Asian actors in it. As I am not Asian I’m not sure I can say much about this. But I think we definitely need to work to diversify everything in media so that people can tell their own stories in a way that is authentic to them.
Over-all I actually really liked ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’, but it wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever seen. Some of the plot points ended up feeling unearned because it felt like there was barely time given to fully exploring the characters. I also think that my high expectations for the film impacted the way that I watched the film and made me think of it more negatively after I had finished it. The more I think about it the more I like it, but I would definitely recommend not getting your hopes up too high for an epic plot and several well developed characters. The movie is great, but I’m not sure it’s won me over enough to join the list of recent Disney movie greats. ‘Moana’, for example, is a much more well done movie and really set the standard for new Disney animation films and honestly animation films in general. ‘Moana’ is one of my favorite films of all time. It feels unfair to compare anything to that movie, but I can’t help but compare newer animation films to that one. You are bound to be disappointed if you do what I did, but that doesn’t mean that this movie is bad. It had the potential to be better than it was, and I think that’s what bugs me the most about this film.
See you across the pond!