It’s been a weird couple of years when it comes to movies. A lot of major movies have been delayed by over a year, including Black Widow of the MCU. Most of the movies that did get released last year bombed hard. Raya and the Last Dragon, the 59th feature film from Disney Animation Studios, only got delayed from November 2020 to May of 2021. It’s also a movie that released simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+, although at first you needed to pay a premium in order to see it on Disney+.
Raya and the Last Dragon was first announced in October of 2018, about a year after they announced that Gigantic was cancelled. At the time, they only announced that it would be written by Adele Lim, and would provide Paul Briggs his directorial debut. Briggs had worked at the studio as an animator on a number of movies since Beauty and the Beast. He was also the “head of story” for Frozen and Big Hero 6. However, he was later demoted to writer while Don Hall took over as the lead director. Hall’s previous directing credits include 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, Big Hero 6, and co-directing Moana. Carlos Lopez Estrada also joined in as the co-director. His previous directing credits include Blindspotting, Summertime, and a number of music videos.
At the time they didn’t say anything about the story, but with several Asian writers, the movie clearly had Asian influences, and the public knew the film would likely feature a female protagonist. Cassie Steele was initially signed on for the title character, but was later replaced with Kelly Marie Tran (Rose in Star Wars 8 and 9) due to large scale shifts in characterization and plot. Other major cast members include Awkwafina as Sisu (a dragon), Gemma Chan as Namaari, Raya’s main rival, Benedict Wong as Tong, a kind-hearted warrior, and Daniel Dae Kim as Raya’s father. Interestingly enough, Disney actually kept their casting a secret, even to the other cast members, and had them all record their lines separately. However, they discovered each other’s involvement before Disney officially released the movie’s cast anyway.
For most of the movie’s production, the crew worked from home, mainly communicating through Zoom. The story and visuals take a lot of influence from South Asia. For example, Raya’s hat is identical to Philippines’s traditional headgear, and her fighting style comes mostly from Malaysian and Indonesian battle traditions. The overall production was supervised by Jennifer Lee, who was promoted to Chief Creative officer at Disney Animation after directing Frozen and Frozen II, along with writing credits for Zootopia and A Wrinkle in Time.
James Newton Howard scored the film, having previously scored the soundtracks for Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and the Fantastic Beasts movies, among many others. That’s quite the wide range of both music styles and movie genres. Anyway, his soundtrack does a great job at capturing the overall fantasy feel of the movie and works well with the overall tone. It’s definitely one of this movie’s stronger elements.
As far as I’m aware, Disney has yet to reveal specific profits for any of their movies that have released on a Disney+ Premium. In theaters, Raya and the Last Dragon it’s earned a total of $121 million worldwide. It’s hard to know whether the Disney+ premium was enough to make the movie profitable, but with a budget somewhere north of $100 million, it could not have been profitable based on ticket sales alone. Disney did say that the movie was watched 115 million times before it went free for all Disney+ subscribers on June 4th. That said, it was free in a handful of countries earlier than that.
Critics reviewed the movie positively in general, giving the movie a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.7/10. IndieWire’s review gave the movie a B+, saying “As the Disney princess brand has continued to evolve … Raya and the Last Dragon is a sterling example of how the trope still has room to grow – while proving that some of the original ingredients can still deliver the goods.” The Atlantic review praised the film’s world-building and attention to detail, but argued that it often got in the way of the movie’s story and message.
As for myself, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this movie just yet. First, the positive. The visuals are fantastic. Once again, Disney is able to push the boundaries of CGI animation, giving us the most realistic looking water we’ve seen in animation to date. Considering water is a major element in both the movie’s visuals and story, that’s a good thing. As stated earlier, the soundtrack is also very good. Tran is compelling in the lead role, showing a good mix of determination and anger with a sense of fun, which works well with the movie’s overall tone.
The action is also very well animated, and it feels like there’s just the right amount of action for this movie’s story and length.
Apart from that though, this movie is very mixed for me. Disney does tend to rely a bit too much on comedy at times, but this movie takes it further than usual. Sisu is a decent character overall, but at times she’s obnoxiously optimistic and naïve. There were a couple of times that I found her mildly annoying. She honestly feels like she belongs in a completely different movie – one that’s a straight comedy. There’s also a 10-year-old boat restaurant chef, who is a bit overly charismatic. He’s fun, but I feel like his character drama would work better if they toned his charisma down a notch. There’s also an infant con artist that’s generally used more for comedy than anything else. More than half of this movie’s major characters are more comic relief than anything else, and that clashes with the overall serious tone of the story. All of these complaints could be considered due to personal taste, but the following criticisms go much deeper.
This movie’s story feels rushed, and it’s often overshadowed by the world-building. The world-building in itself is very well done, but it’s so complex and compressed that it feels like it shouldn’t belong in a standalone movie. Raya and the Last Dragon feels like it’s a film trilogy compressed into a single movie, or perhaps a single season TV show. The result is a lot of rushed character development, poorly explained plot elements, and a moral lesson that doesn’t just feel unearned, but it’s actively hurt by the storytelling.
Speaking of which, what hurts this movie the most is its poor handling of its core message. Warning – spoilers.
The core message is about trusting one another and coming together. On paper it’s a nice sentiment, but not only is it not that simple in real life, but it’s not even that simple within the movie. Raya and Namaari’s rivalry begins when a young Raya decides to trust Namaari with the location of a powerful object only known as “the gem”. Namaari immediately betrays that trust, and the resulting chaos shatters the gem into 5 pieces and puts the entire world in danger. Over the course of the movie, Namaari continues to prove that she cannot be trusted. At one point, she even shoots Sisu with a crossbow, and then proceeds to blame Raya for the death of the last dragon instead of taking any kind of responsibility. Yet even after not earning one ounce of trust, at the film’s climax, Raya decides to trust her anyway, and that action somehow saves the world and brings Sisu back to life.
Namaari’s actions in the end don’t even act as a redeeming moment. Her actions were the only way for her to survive. Recombining the gem even brings all the other dragons back … even though the very creation of this gem didn’t bring any of them back. This movie can’t even get its own mythology straight, or at the least, it refuses to explain why recombining the gem somehow works differently than creating it.
Yeah … trust needs to be earned, and saying otherwise could actually be a dangerous message for kids. It can be dangerous on a personal level, leading to all kinds of bullying or other forms of being taken advantage of. When it comes to international relations, I don’t like getting political on this blog, but there are countries out there that definitely should not be trusted, yet there seems to be a push to get more involved with those countries anyway. The song in the closing credits keeps hammering in the message of trust with an obnoxious pop beat. That last bit is a bit of personal preference – I’m not a fan of that style of pop and I likely never will be.
I wanted to like this movie more than I did. There are some great ideas, and the world-building actually works very well. Unfortunately, the combination of its rushed storytelling, botched moral lesson, and a total lack of permanent consequences cheapens the movie as a whole. The fantastic visuals, brilliant soundtrack and strong performances don’t quite make up for all of this movie’s deeply profound flaws. I’d give this a cautionary recommendation at best.
As of right now, the plan is to look at Black Widow next weekend, and Soul the weekend after that. Next month will be classic musical month. I haven’t decided on my list of movies for that yet, but I’m sure Sound of Music will be in there somewhere.