Raya and the Last Dragon has everything you might want nowadays from a major Disney film — feisty kick-ass heroine, non-white representation, a narrative that isn’t hung up on romance — but no one involved appears to have asked themselves: do we have an interesting story? Do we have any fresh ideas? Is it fun? This may please very small kiddies who don’t know any better, and there are plenty of them about, but Raya’s not a classic in the making. It’s gorgeously depicted, needless to say, but disappointingly unanimated in all other ways.
The premise is set out in the wordy prologue, introducing us to a fantasy world inspired by southeast Asia where, 500 years earlier, the Kumandra people lived in peace and harmony alongside dragons. But then monsters, known as the Druun, trucked up, turning everyone they touched into stone. The last surviving dragon concentrated all her power into a magical gem that blew the Druun away but caused humanity to fight over who would get to keep it. Eventually, Kumandra split into five warring nations: Heart, Talon, Spine, Tail and Fang. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) lives in Heart, where the gem is stored, with her father who believes the Kumandra people can be unified once more. ‘We can tear each other apart or build a better world,’ he says. ‘ We just need to trust each other.’ Oh, it’s that message, the trust one, but don’t panic if you don’t pick up on it first time round. It is repeated. Repeatedly.
Raya’s father invites representatives of the other lands to Heart because if he can just get them round the table ‘we can be one people once again’. But it ends in disaster, the gem is smashed, and the Druun, who materialize as glowing purple ink-blots, return. It’s now up to Raya to find the last surviving dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), and heal all divisions and blah-de-blah you know the rest.
Written by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, and directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, the film is essentially an action one. The plot is driven by jeopardy after jeopardy, and not much else. Raya must visit all the lands to make the gem whole again and you will be asking yourself: how many lands to go? Raya is certainly a kick-ass warrior with excellent fighting skills but when I write my paper on Disney’s commodification of feminism — pre-order now! — I will certainly be asking why she still has to have huge eyes and hair falling silkily to a preposterously tiny waist. Meanwhile, her personality is bland amid a cast of other characters that are similarly so. Raya does have an animal sidekick, Tuk Tuk, who is part pill bug and part armadillo. But as he doesn’t really speak his comic potential is limited. Sisu is intended, I think, to be funny but her goofy-zany shtick is painfully labored and she looks like a disturbingly elongated My Little Pony. Raya’s main enemy is Namaari (Gemma Chan), from Fang, although I’ve already forgotten why she’s so treacherous. I can only tell you that Raya and Namaari fight many, many times in all the lands there are.
The film is so concerned with getting its message across that it fails to create a world that makes any particular sense. There’s no rhyme nor reason to the Druuns, for example, beyond the fact it’s always good to include monsters. If the dragons had been responsible for rain and water, how have the people done without for 500 years? Plots in these instances don’t have to be realistic but you have to believe at some level. Most critically, though, the film is turgid and clichéd and predictable and my tears were not jerked, despite every effort being made. While it may please small kiddies, remember: they are not to be trusted. Ever.