On Further Animated Adventures

Watched Raya and the Last Dragon yesterday, have some thoughts about it.

In my last post about Onward, I off-handedly mentioned Raya and the Last Dragon, which I hadn’t watched yet because it was on the “pay extra, watch early” tier of Disney Plus until yesterday.

I promptly watched it yesterday once it was available for normal viewing.

I’m not going to do a whole Recommendation post about it, partly because it’s probably still new enough and high-profile enough to still be in public consciousness (even accounting for its getting shunted into digital-only).

An illuminated statue of a Chinese dragon and several waterbirds build over water.
Full disclosure: that appears to be a Chinese dragon.
There are similarities, but it’s not quite
the same as dragons in Southeast Asia.

Still, it’s one of the better pictures I could find and is significantly more fitting than a picture of a European dragon…

Photo by Eva Elijas on Pexels.com

I try to limit my recommendations to things that may not be looming large enough in Pop Culture for people to seek them out without prompting, which is why I’ve never done a recommendation for, like, Lord of the Rings or any of the main Star Warses, which really don’t need me going to bat for them.

That being said, I have some thoughts about Raya and the Last Dragon that might be worth sharing.

Short version: yeah, I’m glad I watched it once (without having to pay extra for it). I dig it, but not nearly enough to be in a hurry to watch it again.

Ultimately, I think I have the same issue with Raya as I did with Black Panther. I respect them as moments in cinematic history and for what they’re attempting to do for representation in movies, but I didn’t really enjoy watching them as movies.

Black Panther was a movie about an African superhero, set primarily in Africa, with a predominantly Black cast (and also Bilbo Baggins), with a mostly Black production crew. That’s a big deal. That’s a big moment for cinema. I respect that. I think that’s awesome.

Unfortunately, by the time I go around to seeing Black Panther, I was pretty burned out on superheroes and didn’t really get into what was going on onscreen. Though, admittedly, I’ve watched it a couple more times and I think I’m starting to come around on it. I’ve enjoyed it a little more each time I’ve watched it subsequently.

Raya was similar in a lot of ways. It’s the first Disney movie set in a world based on Southeast Asian mythology and folklore. It has a predominantly Asian cast — the one non-Asian actor I can see listed in the credits isn’t even voicing a human character; he’s making the animal noises for Raya’s pet armadillo … beaver … thing.

Though it’s perhaps worth noting that the film has attracted a certain level of controversy thanks to its casting.

The short version is that some commentators feel that Disney is sabotaging its own attempt at representation by having a film inspired by the culture of Southeast Asia (which Wikipedia defines as consisting of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam) have a cast consisting of actors of East Asian (which Wikipedia defines as China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan) descent.

The implication is therefore taken to be that Disney is implying that all Asian countries and ethnic groups have the same one indistinguishable culture and is basically going “Eh, close enough” in terms of casting.

I’m not going to tell you how to feel about this. I have no reason to believe that you aren’t capable of forming your opinions about things, but I don’t think these criticisms are entirely baseless. I wouldn’t be thrilled to have a movie about prominent Canadians played mostly by American actors, for example.

A close-up of the surface of a lake.
In both the film and the mythology that inspired it, dragons are associated with water.
So, here’s a lake.
Photo by Raul Ortega on Pexels.com

Unfortunately, the movie itself feels formulaic, even for a Disney movie. Of course, the silver lining to this is that, as a very Disney-y Disney movie, it’s good at everything Disney movies are usually good at. The animation is great, the art direction and the visual world-building are great (more on that later), the character designs are great and most of their expressions and movements are fantastic, the performances are solid, the music and sound effects are great.

The plot almost feels better-suited for a video game (or possibly a tabletop RPG campaign). The world is doomed. Raya needs go to five aesthetically distinct levels regions to find the five Things to undoom the world.

A waterfall in a forest.
Needed to break up some paragraphs. Here’s more water.
Photo by Oliver Sju00f6stru00f6m on Pexels.com

It’s not bad, per se.

And the formulaic nature of the plot is at least a little mitigated by the uniqueness of the setting. The Southeast Asian-inspired setting definitely looks cool and stands out pretty easily from the generically European Fairytale style of most previous Disney settings. The same is true of the music, which stands out from most other Disney movies by being based on drastically different musical styles.

Admittedly, I don’t know enough about Southeast Asian culture to know if Raya is an accurate depiction of the region’s architecture and clothing, but I feel like is the sort of the thing Disney is usually pretty good about researching.

The moral lesson of Raya and the Last Dragon feels a little heavy-handed (again, even for a Disney movie). At least it’s a good message (coming together despite our differences, giving and earning trust rather than fighting because of our differences and refusing to trust each other) and the emotional climax creates enough pathos that the message lands successfully and comes to a feel-good ending (again, it’s a Disney movie).

Four women in a group hug.
Not quite this literally, but, basically, everybody hugs, everybody lives happily ever after.
Photo by Elly Fairytale on Pexels.com

Aaaaand, here I am, saying “I’m not going to do a full post about it” and then writing a manifesto about Raya and the Last Dragon. Grand Moff Tarkin must be furious. With that in mind, I think my conclusion is it’s at least worth watching once (especially with how easy Disney Plus makes watching it) and it does some cool things with a setting that we haven’t really seen explored much in Disney movies. Or in much Pop Culture at all, for that matter.

A thumbs-up.
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

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