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Non-Review Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon offers a reminder of just how quietly and efficiently Disney have managed their animated properties.

For a while at the turn of the millennium, the company seemed to struggle to defines its place among younger and hungrier animation studios like Pixar or Dreamworks. The company responded with a push away from the princess-centric movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Mulan that had anchored their renaissance-era output, pivoting sharply: first to animated movies aimed at boys like Atlantis and Treasure Planet, and then to computer-animated adventures like Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Bolt.

Raya hope?

However, towards the end of the decade, the company arguably found its feet again, with a wave of somewhat traditionalist stories. The Princess and the Frog is often treated as the end of an era of hand-drawn animation, but it also marked a rejuvenation of the classic “princess” movie. It was followed by Tangled, Frozen, Moana and Frozen II, all of which were computer-animated takes on a familiar Disney archetype.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a reminder of just how sturdy that old “princess” movie template is, demonstrating the hard work that the company has put in to keep its oldest archetype both resonant and recognisable.

On the surface, Raya and the Last Dragon is very much an “adventure” movie. The core plot focuses on the title character journeying across a vast fantasy landscape to recover and reassemble a shattered mystical artifact. As such, Raya is perhaps more dynamic and proactive than classic princesses like those featured in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella. However, this format shift is perhaps the biggest revamp that Disney made to that classic and archetypal structure.

Raya and the Last Dragon presents it title character as a wandering gunslinger from a western or swordsman from a samurai film. The audience is introduced to Raya riding across the desert on the back of her lovable armadillo Tuk Tuk. She is a bandit and a fugitive. Her opening narration frames the story in these terms. “A lone rider,” she tells audiences. “A dystopian world. A land that’s gone to waste. How did this world get so broken?” Even in flashbacks to her childhood, the character is framed as an action heroine. Her establishing scene evokes Raiders of the Lost Ark.

You gotta roll with it.

However, despite the subtle shift in genre, Raya and the Last Dragon is a surprisingly traditional film in terms of narrative. Indeed, Raya and the Last Dragon is unapologetic about its embrace of the trappings of these sorts of narratives. Raya is not just a warrior, she is explicitly identified early on as a “Princess of Heart.” In Tuk Tuk, she has an adorable anthropomorphic animal companion like Pegasus from Hercules or Abu from Aladdin. The film’s first act features the sort of parental separation typical of films like Bambi or The Lion King.

Even the casting of Awkwafina as the sassy and playful dragon Sisu feels like it harks back to the tradition of casting strong fast-talking comedic performers in supporting roles. Awkwafina joins a rich tradition of comedic Disney supporting players that includes Robin Williams in Aladdin, Eddie Murphy in Mulan and Danny DeVito in Hercules. Indeed, for all that Awkwafina is a very young and modern comedian, it helps that her vocal style arguably feels more like an eighties comedian like Joan Rivers.

Her reception was patchy at best.

While Raya and the Last Dragon is funny and playful, it largely avoids the irony and self-awareness that haunts so much of contemporary animated cinema. It’s a far more traditionalist family movie than something like Tom and Jerry, and quite shrewdly. The jokes largely derive from the characters, and the humour feels organic to the world. Raya and the Last Dragon takes itself and its audience relatively seriously, trusting itself enough to tell an engaging story without defensively coating itself in winking and knowing humour.

Although the film marks a departure from recent films like Frozen or Moana in that it doesn’t contain any big production numbers, it does feature a soaring score from James Newton Howard. Howard’s score feels like a reflection of the movie’s sensibility. It is soaring and earnest, sweeping and sincere. There’s never any sense that Raya and the Last Dragon is ashamed of being a well-made animated film that adheres to the tried-and-tested Disney template. In an era where so much is changing, even the distribution of films like this, it is oddly reassuring.

Dragon her feet.

As such, it’s a remarkable demonstration of how robust the template is, of just how easy it has been for Disney to update one of their most recognisable and archetypal narrative templates for the twenty-first century. There are undoubtedly cultural references that position Raya and the Last Dragon as a production of 2021, such as Sisu’s reference to Boun as “Cap’n Pop ‘n’ Lock”, but the film doesn’t feel radically disconnected or out of place from the earlier examples of the form. Instead, like Tangled and Frozen before it, it feels like a clever and subtle update to a familiar template.

One of the more subtle and interesting features of these recent reworkings of the genre is the way in which they place these updated fairy tale stories in an explicitly modern context. Both Moana and Frozen II were stories very firmly engaged with the moment around them. In particular, Frozen II offered a surprisingly timely meditation on the question of how best to grapple with prosperity built upon generations of exploitation and abuse, an interrogation of imperialism and colonialism that played as an interesting companion piece to Thor: Ragnarok.

Grappling with anxiety.

Raya and the Last Dragon is very conscious of the context in which it exists. Like a lot of contemporary family films, including Trolls World Tour and Wonder Woman 1984, the film largely plays as an appeal to unity and reconciliation. This makes sense in the context of the past few years, as the United States has become increasingly fractured and divided. The starting premise of Raya and the Last Dragon is that a once-great land has been broken into pieces by mistrust and violence.

To its credit, Raya and the Last Dragon does not shy away from this theme. Perhaps because the film’s ambiguously East Asian setting and mythology provide a cloak, Raya and the Last Dragon engages very directly with the realities of the last few years of American politics. Raya explains that things fell apart when “borders were drawn.” The idea of child separation is a major recurring thematic motif, as characters like Boun, Little Noi and even Raya herself are separated from their parents. The monstrous Druun are explicitly described as “a plague borne of human discord.”

Grown wary.

This is a tricky theme, particularly in the context of a family film. It is easy to be flippant about the chaos of the past few years. Appeals for unity and reconciliation can often feel like they come from a place of privilege, from those who have the luxury of treating family separations or minority rights like a bizarre sporting event. These appeals for unity and reconciliation can also appear hopelessly naive, failing to acknowledge that sometimes “the cruelty is the point.” There’s also a tendency to engage in nostalgia, to treat this disruption as an aberration and romanticise the past.

This was part of the problem with movies like Trolls World Tour and Wonder Woman 1984. It’s to the credit of Raya and the Last Dragon that the film grapples with the theme more gracefully. There are moments when the film threatens to tip over into nostalgia. This is most notable when Raya’s introductory narration paints an idealised picture of what life used to be like before the disruption. “This is what we used to be,” she explains. “When our land was whole and we lived harmoniously alongside.” She states, “It was paradise.”

Fur and loathing.

Much of Raya and the Last Dragon is caught in the push-and-pull between Raya and Sisu. Raya suffered a horrific betrayal in her past, one with dire consequences. This has understandably made her paranoid and skeptical about others. In contrast, Sisu believes in the importance of trust and faith. “The world’s broken,” Raya states. “Nobody trusts anyone.” Sisu counters, “Maybe the world’s broken because nobody trusts anyone.”

It’s to the credit of Raya and the Last Dragon that the film never dismisses Raya’s mistrust and skepticism. Repeatedly, the film demonstrates the folly of trusting others who may not be acting in good faith. Sisu’s eagerness to trust other people leads her and Raya into traps, and almost gets them killed. The handful of times that Raya makes a leap of faith, she learns that trust can be exploited like a weapon by a cruel and cynical opponent.

Snow escape.

It’s a much more grounded and realistic exploration of the breakdown of the social contract than Trolls World Tour or Wonder Woman 1984, in that it is willing to acknowledge that a lot of civic disruption is caused by people who have no interest in social cohesion or the greater good – that self-interest makes cooperation difficult, and that simply hoping for the best is not a winning strategy of itself. It’s a surprisingly nuanced sketch of the current moment than one might expect from an animated adventure film aimed at children.

Of course, this nuance causes problems of itself, most notably at the film’s climax. Towards the end of the film, Raya has been betrayed time and time again in her efforts to bring peace to the realm, and is betrayed one final time by an old enemy. However, the climax requires Raya to make a leap of faith and to trust the person who betrayed her repeatedly. It’s a fitting and optimistic end to this story, but it never feels entirely earned. It’s a slight cheat, but a necessary one in order to resolve the story in the way that it needs to be resolved.

Defending the realm.

There are other minor problems with Raya and the Last Dragon. Owing to its adventure movie structure, the plot is essentially one gigantic fetch quest. Raya has to journey to the five realms scattered across the kingdom to reassemble a shattered artifact. While this allows for a nice variety of set pieces and provides the opportunity to showcase a wide variety of designs, it does feel a little episodic and unstructured. Raya’s progression through the narrative doesn’t feel linear or organic, but instead moves in fits and starts.

This is a minor recurring structural problem with these revamped “princess” movies, most notably with Moana. The film can occasionally feel more like a collection of individual scenes and set pieces than a single cohesive narrative. This is a largely a result of the biggest structural changes to the template, making the lead character more dynamic and proactive. It requires a lot of exposition and world-building, which is not always especially elegant.

Whatever floats your boat.

However, these set pieces and scenes largely work on their own merits. While Raya and the Last Dragon avoids the sorts of musical numbers associated with these films. Instead, the film is a little visually playful. At certain points, directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada switch to beautiful old-fashioned two-dimensional animation for flashbacks or imaginary sequences. At other points, the film experiments with split screen in the style of East Asian action cinema. While Raya and the Last Dragon could stand to be more adventurous, this playfulness is welcome.

Raya and the Last Dragon also benefits from a tremendous cast. The film features charming vocal performances from actors like Daniel Dae Kim and Benedict Wong, but is anchored in the central duo of Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as Sisu. The pair bounce off one another beautifully, bringing contrasting and complimentary energy to the film. Raya is a surprisingly compelling protagonist, one who is perhaps more relatable and understandable than many of her contemporaries, in large part due to Tran’s work in the role.

Weight and see.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a charming old-fashioned animated story, but one that demonstrates how well that narrative template has endured. It has a lot of interesting things to say about the world in which it exists. While it’s a little too episodic at times, and while the pacing occasionally suffers as a result, it is a beautifully made and endearingly earnest addition to the Disney animated canon.

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