The Movie Guru: “Raya and the Last Dragon” satisfying but misses its message
The protagonists may change, but the Disney formula for a successful movie never does.
That formula is on display once again in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which hits theaters and Disney+ Premiere Access on Friday. The movie has all the essential elements — a spunky protagonist on a quest, a beautifully animated world for them to explore, plucky sidekicks, a cute animal or fantasy creature as a companion and an inspirational message for the protagonist to learn. Other elements have proven to be purely optional, including a love interest, but Disney rarely if ever misses one on the essentials list. It’s a formula people continue to like.
In “Raya,” our spunky protagonist is a survivor of a broken world. After a heartbreaking, apocalyptic betrayal, Raya and her trusty roly-poly undertake a quest to wake a sleeping dragon, put a pearl back together, and save the world. On the way, they meet a strange and often hilarious group of individuals eager to help them on their journey.
As far as heroic journeys go, this is a satisfying one. Raya is easy to like, though hot-tempered and (understandably) slow to trust, and her companions are all funny and charming even when they’re causing trouble. Their adventures offer just the right amount of excitement and danger, and when the stakes get higher at the end you care enough about the characters to be genuinely worried for them.
There’s also some wonderful things to look at. Though there’s been some debate as to whether the salad bowl of South Asian cultures counts as good representation or not, the result is a gorgeous, beautifully detailed world easy to get lost in. The character animation is also well-done, with some good facial variety and beautiful costuming. Though the quality of the dragon’s design was another source of debate, Awkwafina’s boisterous performance makes her entertaining to watch.
The movie’s message of unification and healing is also well-meant, and more welcome than ever during the multiple levels of crisis we’ve also lived through this past year. It’s overly simplistic, particularly on a political level, but the movie’s heart is clearly in the right place.
When it tries to talk about trust, however, the message is both overly simplistic and self-contradicting. The basic theme seems to be to trust blindly and everything will work out in the end, but the movie also shows multiple times that showing that kind of trust in people can and will get you killed. The main focus of this trust message is the movie’s functional antagonist, a young woman named Namaari, and a lot of the film’s impact depends on having faith in her despite all evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately, the movie fails to give the audience any glimmer of hope that she is capable of making the right decision. This is mostly because all we see of her character is a series of wrong decisions that betray characters the movie makes us do a better job of caring about, barely offering any nuance or reasoning behind those decisions. A journey that might have been profound in another studio’s hands falls flat under the Disney formula.
In the end, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a good story. But there’s a part of me that wishes someone else had been the one to tell it.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements
Screenplay by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, story by Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Adele Lim, Carlos López Estrada, Kiel Murray, Qui Nguyen, John Ripa, and Dean Wellins
Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada (co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa)
Starring Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Jona Xiao, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong and more
Grade: Two and a half stars
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.