Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Written by Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim, and good God, so many others
I suppose I'd like to say Raya and the Last Dragon represents an improvement over Walt Disney Animation Studios' output over the last several years, because, well, it is. Nevertheless, it's an improvement by the smallest degree, and given that the studio's prior two films saw the greatest cartoon house on Earth move from the dysfunctional soullessness of Ralph Breaks the Internet to the dysfunctional soullessness of Frozen II, all this means is that Raya achieves the great feat of functional soullessness, and that it confirms that whatever it is we'll call this period of Disney history, we're pretty much irrevocably in a post-Second Renaissance world.
Why this happened is opaque to me. "Disney history," obviously, is something that interests me greatly, but for all that there were reasonably clear explanations for the studio's previous downshifts in quality—Michael Eisner's quixotic pursuit of the teen boy market at the turn of the century, for example; or, to go way back, the Second World War—there is not any obvious reason why WDAS turned on a dime from the run of good movies, great movies, masterpieces, and Frozen that began with 2010's Tangled (or even 2008's Bolt) to an ongoing run of movies that are, if you're lucky, watchably mediocre, which began immediately after Moana. Sure, one can point at John Lasseter's fall from grace and his replacement at WDAS by Jennifer Lee, but truthfully we haven't even seen her creative leadership yet (Raya would be the first film she's overseen any significant part of as CCO, and, if anything, managing to finish it with only a few months' delay while overseeing WDAS's shift to remote work earns Lee a respect from me that her actual directorial and screenwriting efforts have not). No, for unknown causes, the Lasseter regime's final projects simply haven't been very good, despite WDAS appearing to be as commercially and technically robust as ever, and with no significant personnel change otherwise that I'm aware of. Maybe one day it'll be clearer what caused this, though I suppose being forced by the higher echelons of the corporation into doing movies that plainly never wanted to be made didn't help anything. Either way, Raya soars to the top of the new Disney heap by virtue of being "not terrible," and I suppose by also not being a compulsory sequel—technically "an original," even if precious little in it feels that way—and by being a movie that at least somewhat acts like it wanted to exist in the first place. But, you know, still not all that much.
So, what we have in Raya is a full-on high fantasy, albeit not a very complex or credible one, mixing the cultures and aesthetics of a large swathe of Southeast Asia (and not to everybody's delight, in case that somehow surprises you here in A.D. 2021). This is somewhat in the same vein as traditional high fantasy's treatment of Western Europe, or at least it's more like that than the vague white person locations that tend to form the backdrops in most Disney fantasies. This land we've been invited to live in for 117 minutes (a worryingly long runtime for a Disney film, but in fairness a lot of them, like upwards of ten, are credits) is Kumandra. This is a world where dragons once helped maintain a delicate agrarian utopia—but, as Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) explains to us in her opening spiel with the help of the kind of "stylized" expositional animation that was once a lot of fun and which this movie turns into a tired cliché, this was long ago. Five centuries have passed since the arrival of the Druun, evil spirits who blighted the world, turning people and dragons alike to stone. The last surviving dragon, Sisu (Nora "Awkwafina" Lum), was entrusted with a talisman imbued with her fellows' last remaining magic. With this, she banished the Druun, preserving what was left of humanity but, it's said, at the cost of her own life. Unfortunately, much of the damage was already done: afterward, the Kumandrans split into five hostile nations, each claiming a patch of their dragon-shaped continent and adopting the name analogous to each one's respective dragon part, which is how the talisman came to be safekept by the leaders of the Heart tribe, ensuring that their film's story shall be as absolutely schematic as it is humanly possible for a story to be.
Heart's current leader and Raya's father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), still nurses the hope of reuniting his fragmented world. To this end he invites the leaders of Fang and Spine and Tail and Talon to a conference to hash things out, and, surprisingly, Virana (Sandra Oh), the leader of the people happy to be described as "Fang," turns out to have a villainous plan to acquire the talisman that has, in her view, granted Heart an unfair prosperity these last few hundred years. This plan takes the form of her daughter Namaari (Gemma Chan) getting within striking distance by abusing Raya's hospitality, and it works out poorly for everybody when the resulting pell-mell of visiting dignitaries ends up with the oddly-fragile orb dropping to the floor and shattering into five pieces, one for each group, and breaking its holding spell. This gives the Druun another chance, with the only things stopping them being the weakened magic of the five individual shards and the existence of water, the only physical thing they fear. Raya makes it out alive. Her father does not.
We catch up with Raya six years later, grown to womanhood, angry and sullen (hypothetically), and having spent the interval searching for Sisu, whom she hopes still exists and will help her restore her world. As far as we're concerned, Raya finds her, like, instantly, and this would be the first structural flaw of several in a very structurally-flawed screenplay, credited to Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim for, one suspects, optical purposes, but which rests atop of the efforts of what might honestly be the largest story development team in Disney history, outnumbering the named characters in this film by at least a factor of two, and not all that much smaller than the population of Southeast Asia itself. Tasked by all these writers with a quest to reassemble the dragons' orb, Raya and Sisu embark on a series of missions across the various lands of Kumandra to reacquire its pieces, but a grown-up Namaari is hot on their heels.
So this is workable, although, as noted, very unsteady: it is genuinely shocking just how quickly we arrive upon the holy dragon, and while some lip service is paid to "a broken world" and Raya's years of exertion in the dust of a quotidian, ugly society, we don't see any of it, and are not invited to feel it beyond a few shots of Raya's wanderings through a desert atop her trusty giant pangolin, Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), which she has converted into a Mad Maxian motorcycle. (Tuk Tuk represents one of the film's few real whimsies, probably the most successful and imaginative of them, too, although he's also a constant distraction, since he is such a bizarre image, entirely unstressed by the story, and it's difficult to wrap your head around how he actually works.) So the very first scene with an adult Raya basically ends a story we weren't around for, the conclusion of a quest that doesn't even come off as difficult—essentially, it doesn't seem like anybody actually looked for Sisu during the five centuries she was gone, and it may be worth imagining an Aladdin where the first proper scene is "Friend Like Me"—and those "five centuries" are elided in a cheat, anyway, not even giving the dragon a cosmic gloss, let alone attempting to portray the loneliness of a magical being who's been the last of her kind for half a millennium. Apparently, she's just been taking a nap. She also does not seem to be terribly affected by her last memories being the death of all she knew. (As Aladdin for some reason keeps coming to mind, the crazy thing is that Robin Williams's Genie is, arguably, more psychologically credible.)
But now we're prematurely getting into the really bad stuff, and I wanted to stick with the less-gratingly-obvious and maybe more fundamental problems, since once Raya and Sisu have joined forces (and I grouse, but I am sympathetic to the needs of this plot to put Raya and the last dragon together fairly quickly, just not this quickly), Raya becomes a series of small quests across Kumandra, none of which (again) turn out to be hard, and which we race through like an impatient tourist but we might as well, since none of the film's locations are interesting anyway, being one-note yet not even all that visually distinct. (The best one is the one that's already largely dead, and located inside some Indiana Jones ruins.) I've run across complaints that Raya feels like the video game adaptation of itself. This is maybe overly-mean, but not unfair, for as each map is completed Raya picks up a new member of her party, three times out of four by making an ally out of an enemy, because of themes. Theoretically, this could make Raya kin to Flash Gordon, and therefore I should like it. Except the majority of Raya's new friends are deeply-irritating comic relief. As is Sisu, for that matter. As is, for the most part, Raya.
And that's where Raya makes frequent detour into being not just flat and simplistic, but mildly awful, with virtually no effort expended by the 675 million people who wrote it to make any of their characters speak or think differently from one another, let alone make them seem like they might be alive in an Iron Age neverwhen, even the Disneyfied version of one. Anachronistic attitudes and signifiers have been part of the Disney brand since practically the very beginning, and when well-calibrated it can put a perfectly charming modern spin on fairy tale timelessness—The Little Mermaid, Tangled, and, for all that its Twitter joke and its metacommentary on princesses remain needles in my eardrums, Moana managed an extraordinary balance between mythic seriousness and cartoon pep. But in Aladdin, Genie opened the door to a much more abrasive style of anachronism, one driven by an impossible knowledge perilously close to fourth-wall-breaking omniscience. Raya is a movie where every. single. character is Genie. A much less funny Genie, too. Raya is almost never funny: Sisu has one very, very good gag about the broken orb, responding to Raya's assurance that it still exists, only it's in pieces, which Sisu analogizes to somebody trying to comfort a dog owner by asserting that they still have the "chunks." It's an excellent gag, and, tellingly, only depends on Sisu knowing what a dog is, not what "group projects" or "dance battles" are. As a good joke, it dies of loneliness. But Raya isn't even supposed to be funny: it's supposed to be mythopoeic and meaningful, so judging it on the standards of Hercules or The Emperor's New Groove or Tangled, avowed slapstick comedies, becomes equally impossible. It's not even that Raya's humor is so out of whack with the setting (though it is), but that it renders everything it does frivolous, from Raya's epic struggles to Sisu's divinity to Namaari's enmity. (Which is somehow bilateral: I mean, sure, for Raya, the day Namaari came to her village was the most important day of her life; but for Namaari, was it not just a Tuesday?)
Raya, for all its writers, does not actually come off like a movie that had a screenplay: it feels more like Tran, Lum, and Chan were invited to improv across an enormous stretch of runtime until somebody finally started to course-correct with about half an hour to go, whereupon the dialogue becomes a discussion about Raya's inability to trust everyone and Sisu's inability to mistrust anyone, stuck on a loop until finally Sisu gets proven right, and we arrive at the point that the characters finally figure out what every viewer already knew, because it's what the viewers were told upfront, which is that the dragons are these people's actual, literal gods, and having a dragon spend a lot of time hiding in her gawky human form was counterproductive. Lum's the only one who does the slightest thing with any of this: she has the most jarring jokes (maybe: Tran and Chan's riffing on which one is the bigger "dragon nerd" is terrible), but she's also the only one who achieves a measure of sincerity. Maybe that's just the privilege of playing the wacky Disney magical friend, but Tran and Chan barely bother trying to make the thirteen year old happy versions of their characters sound different from the sad adult ones. The other characters are uniformly single-scene ideas (at best), who become constant fixtures anyway. This is ultimately in service of some facile ideas about unity and forgiveness that barely refrain from announcing "this is about America!", and obviously don't benefit from being viewed through that lens.
It looks good, though, and sometimes looks great, though I'm kind of at a loss to see how it represents the quantum leap some others have observed: it is a well-built CG cartoon with the same world-class particle and water animation as you would expect from WDAS, with possibly some iterative improvement on the human characters (that's what they say; I don't see it) with the same world-class hair animation and skin texturing and character rigging (the last being the only thing I might consider an actual improvement, and in service to not-exceptionally-interesting characters, so it would be hard to judge). To some degree, this makes it so that the Disney feature Raya most reminds me of isn't Aladdin, but The Black Cauldron: questionable world-building with depressingly-bland characters in the vaguest-possible high-fantasy setting, made under the assumption that the effects animators and background artists would give it the oomph it needed to be treated as an epic piece of Disney animation. (It's also, like Black Cauldron, not a musical, which I think is the most confoundingly inexplicable thing about Raya, when Disney's had such success lately with musicals—I mean, when the First Renaissance tailed off, at least there was bad logic behind abandoning the musical form. I know that "Raya isn't a musical" isn't legitimate criticism, but it's hard to be thrilled about a Disney princess movie with no songs, and there's no doubt in my mind Raya would benefit from anything that would give it a narrative scaffolding or emotional hook, or even just a place to put its dumb comic bullshit other than right smack in the middle of the diegesis.)
By all means, Raya's artists manage their task well, and in Sisu, they achieve some real magic, with probably the best-built animal (or whatever) character of Disney's CG era, with an intelligent application of Keanesque expressivity to an Asian dragon template, and her fuzz and fur subject to environmental factors of wind and water in ways that are intoxicatingly richly-done. And of course she is magic, so our fuzzy, furry friend glows and breathes iridescent fog and skips across splattered raindrops in midair, a somewhat silly visual that's still full of wonderment. (As for the human characters, Raya and Namaari are clean designs, and there's some fun business with a sequence given over to one of the comic relief characters and their monkey sidekicks, which again feels like it's tonally in a different movie entirely, but does involve some great, rubber-band-like movements in the character animation.) As for Kumandra, while its constituent parts lack much individual visual identity, at least the world as a whole has one—probably not worth paid vacations to Asia for its designers, but I say that every time Disney animators take a trip to see things they could look up in a book. The Druun, meanwhile, are abysmally unimaginative black clouds with glowing purple lights inside them, some of the most boring things I've ever seen in any Disney film; they're not supposed to have personality, of course, but it might've been cooler if they did.
In terms of staging all this, Raya can, occasionally, even shine. Whenever nobody's talking, it even resembles the timelost legend it was supposed to be. But shining does throw the rest of it into sharp relief. It's the first Disney film to try to incorporate martial arts into its action, and probably doesn't do it enough for that to be its "thing," but there is a very remarkable scene toward the end where the montage and camera layout finally touch something epic, as the collapse of a city, ushering in the death of a whole world, is narrowed down to our villain's self-loathing fighting spirit and our hero's laser-focused desire to simply hurt her enemy while they're both still alive—which means that by far the most believable emotional register the film ever occupies is blind, violent hatred, and I'm not sure its makers noticed this. Otherwise, Raya is a hollow experience: even when it finally gets down to business and attempts to remind you that it's a film about fear and frailty and loss and sacrifice and friendship, it is so utterly terrified that anything could have a consequence—and so openly telegraphs that nothing will—that even in the midst of its most most effortful intensities toward the end, there's not a lot here capable of generating honest feeling, and thus when somehow the layout and James Newton Howard's score and the swirling apocalyptic lightshow that apparently now ends every Disney movie, not just their Marvel ones, make you feel something anyway, you just feel misused by it.