It’s no secret that over the past decade, Disney has been in a “revival” era. With masterpieces like Zootopia, Princess and the Frog, and Wreck-it Ralph, along with other astonishing efforts like Tangled, Moana, and Big Hero 6, Disney has been knocking it out of the park. However, Disney Animation has been in a little bit of a slump since, I’d say, 2018. Ralph Breaks the Internet was a perfectly serviceable sequel, but was a notch below the original and took its meta humour to some questionable places. And Frozen 2… don’t get me started on Frozen 2. And I’m sorry to say that Raya and the Last Dragon is not much different. It’s not as good as Ralph Breaks the Internet, but almost as disappointing and lacking as Frozen 2. It’s still better, but not by a lot. Raya and the Last Dragon, while it has stellar animation and world-building and exhilarating action scenes, is a lacklustre Disney Animation effort that could have been so much more had it not fallen into the Disney Princess story trap, and had not featured such bland and uninspired writing.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in a land called Kumandra, which had been broken into 5 different tribes. The land is also infested with evil spirits known as Druun. When an orb that has been warding the Druun off breaks, they rampage the land and turn most of the people inhabiting Kumandra into stone. Raya needs to get back all 5 broken pieces of the orb to bring everyone back.
I should note that the very first thing I said after viewing this film was “Well, it’s a Disney movie”. When I would say that before, back when Disney was redefining what is considered a Disney movie, that was a huge compliment! But now, I just mean it was nearly beat for beat the exact same structure as pretty much any other Disney Princess movie dating back to the Disney Renaissance of the late 80’s and the 90’s. It does not do much to redefine the core structure and formula of a Disney Princess movie. In fact, the story is completely bogged down because they decided to adopt this structure. The most intriguing thing it has going for it is its scope. I appreciate the action-adventure epic sort of style that it’s going for, I’m a sucker for those kinds of movies. But they could have gone further with it and they could have made this so much better had they decided to break out of that formula.
The scope is bogged down by its shockingly weak and, at times dare I say, cringe-worthy writing (the likes of which would feel right at home on the Disney Channel), its by-the-numbers characterization, and its very safe approach to the storytelling. It’s almost as if the film is being held back by the fact that it’s Disney, and bringing with this baggage a plethora of nonsensical plot holes, and many story choices that were confusing and existing just to move the story forward. These moments would have made more sense if they were done differently.
This is not to say that Raya and the Last Dragon is a bad film. There is a lot of good here that I will speak about momentarily. But it could have been so much more, and so much better. It’s just a shame that they decided to go with the Disney Princess formula and completely mismanaged the script. A stronger writing team would have gone a very long way.
We’re living in a very exciting time where doing new and unique things with animation is now the norm outside of the likes of Pixar. So seeing what could have been a very ambitious action-adventure epic turn into something so formulaic felt very off-putting and predictable to me. I can compare this film, nearly beat by beat, to a film like Beauty and the Beast. I may have gotten past this if the writing wasn’t so borderline terrible and full of cringe-worthy humour and exposition. But the fact of the matter is that there is a deeper issue here, and that is a problem within Disney’s own storytelling formula. I don’t know how much longer Disney can keep using the exact same formula over and over again before audiences just stop watching these films. Audiences won’t stick around forever, there is fierce and growing competition in the animation world, and Disney is now pretty behind, especially as there is so much more ambition coming out of other animation houses right now. Disney used to be far ahead, making bold and unique films over the past decade, but that originality seems to be dwindling.
The film, however, is saved by a fantastic third act, with its increased tension and action elements. To speak more good of the film, action scenes are very well paced and exciting, the animation is spectacular – as is to be expected from Disney, especially when it gets to the hand drawn moments, which sadly only occur during scenes that are spoken either retrospectively, or to lay out a plan. I also noticed some film grain in some of the scenes. That was an interesting touch. They obviously used a grain filter in the animation software, so while it doesn’t feel authentic, it does look nice.
I read that the film was actually censored internally when it was getting to be a little too violent and gruesome. In other words, it was Disney being Disney, again not wanting to take any risks or do something new with their animation output. Reading up on the subject matter that was cut, there was nothing there that really screamed a PG-13 rating, despite the director completely over-blowing it as “R-rated violence” which is just ridiculous. Reading that left me disappointed that the film didn’t end up being the film that the creative team wanted, nor the film that we, in all honesty, should have gotten. That said, I dove right into this film as excited as I’d be for any other Disney film. Yet I was still left disappointed.
This film is not one of the funnier Disney films, though it tries very hard to be. Some moments really got me laughing, sometimes rather loudly, but 95% of the jokes just fall flat. Very juvenile humour in play here, backed up by appallingly contemporary dialogue which makes absolutely no sense in this world. This film is also not one of the more tear-jerking Disney films, though it doesn’t quite try to be that as far as I can tell. For all I know, they could’ve been trying to bring out tears but it was so poorly done I simply didn’t notice. I don’t know. But it’s not a laugh out loud riot of a film, nor does it have the heart of films like Zootopia, Wreck-it Ralph, Big Hero 6, or some of the many other Disney films from this past decade.
I liked some of the characters a lot. I thought Raya was a well-realized character, along with the antagonist. The con baby Noi was one of the funniest characters in the film, she was enjoyable to watch. However, I absolutely despise Sisu, the “last dragon” character. Absolutely despised her. Which is frustrating because she is by far the most important character in the film. She was annoying, immensely unfunny and left me cringing nearly every moment she was on screen. Just an awful character. Boun is another character that just really got on my nerves in his first scene, but then actually turned into a real well-rounded character so I didn’t mind him. The film had a pretty mixed bag of characters, but at least they did right with the main protagonist and antagonist.
The film can get kind of preachy with its thematic message pertaining to Raya’s character arc, even going so far as to repeat, pretty much word by word, a line of dialogue she had just said a few minutes before in one instance just to beat us over the head with the message. With that kind of dialogue, I wonder what kind of message we’re going to learn in the third act… hmmm… It’s a very meaningful and beautiful message, but they get too preachy with it, especially in the second act when it’s not even supposed to come full circle yet. And when it does all come together in the third act, what could have been a really deep and heartfelt scene just felt like the byproduct of the film’s own lack of subtlety.
To push aside the bad for a moment and speak a little more good of the film, I greatly respect the decision to not make this film a musical. There is nothing in this film that would suggest it would have been improved with musical numbers, and I’m glad Disney didn’t push the creative team to turn this into another musical just because it’s a Disney Princess film. I will also reiterate just how spectacular and well done the world-building is. It’s not one of the most unique worlds Disney has built, but it feels very authentic and you can see how much effort was put in, both from an animation and research standpoint. The film also has some very dynamic direction, especially in action scenes. It gets very exciting and fun, and exhibits immense talent on the directing side. It made me wish I was actually seeing this movie in a theatre like we were all meant to. Finally, the score is also impactful, with the incredibly talented James Newton Howard making a return to Disney Animation to compose it. It added life, depth and excitement to every single scene. Bravo!
I have a lot of complaints with this film, and I’ve been seeing many people be very quick to excuse Disney given the fact that the film was produced almost entirely within the individual homes of the cast and crew. Production from home has of course been a very challenging, albeit temporary change to get used to within the industry. But I feel the need to clarify – that is not the issue here. To say it is would be to assume that the animation, production design, world-building, and voice acting are all compromised in some way. But that is simply not true. No, the issue here lies solely in the writing. This is one of the weakest scripts I’ve seen out of Disney this past decade, up there with Frozen 2, which itself was littered with its own detrimental production problems on the storytelling end. Not knowing the answers to the questions you’ve built up until 3 months before release? What an awful mess of a production. But I digress. The point is that poor writing is not to be excused by working from home. In fact, it’s very likely that the majority of the script, if not the entire script, was already done before the move to at-home production. That does not excuse the awful writing at play here. The most important part of any film is the writing, and they dropped the ball greatly. If the writing were better, if the story were told better with a more unique structure that didn’t fall into Disney’s own overused formula, had they given the subject matter of the film the kind of storytelling it deserved, this could have been a masterpiece, and one of the best Disney films ever made. But they didn’t do that, so the film suffered immensely. And that has nothing to do with working from home. If anything, the writing more so alludes to either pressure on the studio level, or simply a lack of talent.
Overall, this film is no Zootopia or Wreck-it Ralph, but it is still a fun, action-oriented flick with some stellar animation, direction, world-building and production value. Even if the writing is not nearly up to that Disney standard we’ve come to expect after so many films from this revival era, I do have a soft spot for the action-adventure epic genre. I just wish they tried to be more unique with its storytelling, rather than placing this genre under the confines of such an overused formula. It has all the right pieces of an instant classic, but its poor writing and storytelling brought it down, and kept the film from living up to its full potential.
FILM GRADE: C+