Disney’s latest computer-animated spectacle Raya and the Last Dragon arrives amid pervasive division that continues to define the current moment, and the film is an earnest attempt by the studio to meet it headfirst thematically. Now, the Mouse House is no stranger to stories of heroes who save the day by bringing opposing factions together. Nor has the larger corporate entity shied away from stories that telegraph their timeliness or cultural urgency to overly simplified, emptily hashtaggy results (think Elsa’s hyper-vaguely examined queerness, Captain Marvel‘s even vaguer ideas on female power, etc.). Emotion is also something that Disney’s brand of filmmaking has fallen into more cynical and mechanical tactics of late. But in presenting a divided world brought together by its titular heroine, Raya and the Last Dragon succeeds at telling a story of reconciliation thanks to its well-developed emotional underpinnings, achieving in something that resonates in quite welcome and modest ways.
Kelly Marie Tran voices the compassionate and brave Raya, a princess trained to protect the peacekeeping Dragon Gem. Her home of Kumandra has been split physically and politically into several factions after a power struggle over the Gem, unleashing the cursed Druun (a shadow monster that turns people to stone) to terrorize them all. To restore her land into harmony, Raya sets out to find the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) that created the Gem. But reviving Sisu is only the beginning of her journey, one that ultimately speaks to the importance of collective trust.
With a delightful voice cast that also includes Benedict Wong and Gemma Chan, the film hews close to the animated formula of goofiness juxtaposed against its more central ideas. The wisdom of Raya is that it doesn’t lean in too hard on its most familiar elements, allowing its more unique thematic terrain and smartly textured worldbuilding to hold the spotlight. Rather than providing a new recipe, it instead fills it with solid ingredients – family dynamics as integral to the hero’s journey (though here with a chosen family twist), a surprising costume change for the sidekick, a dastardly baby and her three monkeys. Most of all, the film’s exploration of contemporary concerns (not to mention its rendering of Asian identity) rings more genuinely intended than the strained, cynically-minded recent examples from the Disney machine. It’s a simple adventure story that’s told well and builds as it goes.
Despite the many ways it satisfies, Raya isn’t without its slipups. The film’s visual refinement is off-balance and feels underserved, begging that Disney spent as much on this effort as it had for its other popular films with half of Raya’s narrative impact. A sputtering first act makes for a sluggish start unsure of where the real story is to begin, perhaps a sign of storytelling puzzle-building from the film’s eight writers with a story credit. Not to be too presumptive of the priorities of a corporation, but the final film reeks of a C-level handling of a potential A-level story.
Raya and the Last Dragon is both an example of how big-budget storytelling should aim to organically connect with audiences and the ways that machine can sell its stories short. Offering a story of what has to be done (and maybe sacrificed) in order for people to think of the collective good, it also provides a well-balanced assortment of characters we invest in, each contributing something to the film’s narrative purpose. Perhaps that is the secret to its resonance – with the blunter maneuverings of the corporation behind it keeping it from achieving greater heights.