If Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon seems familiar, that might be because…well, because of echoes of a lot of things, really. (For one thing, the plot takes the form of yet another Marvel-style scavenger-hunt to find and reunite magical stones of power.)
The most illuminating points of comparison, though, may be a pair of five-year-old Disney movies—Moana and Zootopia—and the extent to which Raya and the Last Dragon can be seen as a mash-up of these two popular 2016 films says as much about the culture of ideas at work at Disney today as any film they’ve released in the last five years.
The more obvious point of comparison is Moana, Disney’s other action-princess movie with Asian-Pacific cultural and mythological roots. (Moana’s milieu is Polynesian, Raya’s Southeast Asian.)
Not only is Raya, like Moana, a mythic tale about an intrepid young princess leaving her homeland on a quest to save her world from an intangible menace, in both stories what broke the world was an act of greed for a magical stone. The two films also share weaknesses with regard to their mythological elements, particularly when it comes to archetypes of harmony and life on the one hand and chaos and destruction on the other.
Just as notable, though, are ties to Zootopia.
While Zootopia is populated by anthropomorphic animals, its heroine, like Raya, inhabits a world of diverse realms and populations uneasily coexisting in the shadow of a dream of utopian harmony. In both films the balance is upset and old hostilities between demographics are renewed, and the heroine must find a way to restore what was lost.
Raya opens with a myth of paradise lost, set in the fantasy land of Kumandra. Given the Asian milieu, it’s no surprise that the dragons we find in this paradise (via a rather dense prologue, animated in a flat style evocative of cutout paper puppetry) are not the malicious, fiery monsters of Western mythology, but benevolent beings associated with water and peace.
The malevolent power that we are told shattered Kumandra’s paradise was no demon, though it’s vaguely suggestive of an inchoate Balrog: a mindless, raging maelstrom of smoke and lilac-colored energy called the Druun that is able to reproduce, horrifyingly, by sweeping over human beings and turning them into stone.
Even the dragons were helpless against this menace—until the last dragon, Sisudatu, banished them (apparently extinguishing herself in the process) with a burst of the very last dragon-magic concentrated in a gemstone of power.
Paradise, though, was not restored. Squabbling over the Dragon Gem, the inhabitants of Kumandra fragmented into five rival lands, each with their own culture and style, named for parts of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Talon, Spine, and Tail. Somehow, Heart wound up with the gem, to the resentment of the other lands.
The story proper begins five hundred years later, with young Raya of Heart (exuberant Kelly Marie Tran of Disney’s Star Wars sequels) eager to take her place at the side of her father, Chief Benja (warmly low-key Daniel Dae Kim), as guardian of the Dragon Gem.
Full of martial zeal, Raya sees the other lands as sinister enemies—and is aghast to learn that her idealistic father has called the lands together in the hope of overcoming their differences and reuniting Kumandra.
In a striking exchange, Chief Benja explains to Raya how people of different lands wrongly assume things about one another. The lesson may be the same progressive pro-diversity theme at work in Zootopia and other recent Disney cartoons, but it’s a welcome surprise to find the young protagonist naively expressing narrow views and the tolerant parent gently prodding her in a more broad-minded direction—a pointed subversion of the overused Junior Knows Best dynamic dominating recent US animation.
The summit, though, goes disastrously awry, so much so that it appears to validate Raya’s concerns. A renewed struggle over the Dragon Gem leads to the loss of the gem and the return of the Druun, dooming all of Kumandra, unless Raya can somehow accomplish the impossible: restore the last dragon, Sisudatu, to life.
Except the impossible turns out to be so straightforward—a simple, deus ex machina ritual performed in the right location—that it’s hard to fathom why in 500 years no one bothered to try it before. This is just one example of the film’s slapdash approach to its mythological elements.
If Sisudatu’s return is underwhelming, well, so is Sisudatu herself—or Sisu for short, voiced by Awkwafina (The Farewell).
From the outset the film establishes dragons as objects of reverential awe; even ruthless Namaari (Gemma Chan), the warrior princess of Fang and Raya’s chief antagonist, falls silent as she rides past a cluster of stone dragons, clearly a sacred locale. The dragons and the Druun are opposites, representing the yin and yang of human nature: the propensity for conflict and violence versus the capacity for harmony and peace.
Alas, the Druun overshadow the dragons on about every level. If the Druun are viscerally frightening, the dragons ought to inspire awe, or at least look formidable.
Sisu looks like a silly extra from Monsters, Inc. (in fact, not unlike a cross between Sully and Randall). Although larger than Eddie Murphy’s Mushu from the animated Mulan, Sisu hasn’t much more visual impact. (Moana had a similar problem: The lava demon—which at the time I also compared to a Balrog—was properly terrifying, but her counterpart, the gentle island goddess, was merely benign, not beatific.) After all the inventive dragon species we met in DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon series, I expect more.
The problem is compounded by Sisu’s goofiness, which might as well have been crafted for Awkwafina’s endearingly messy, quirky, self-deprecating slacker persona. “I’m gonna be real with you—I’m not, like, the best dragon,” she admits, adding, “Have you ever done a group project but there’s just like that one kid who didn’t pitch in as much but still ended up with the same grade?”
The glaringly anachronistic banter is part of the issue. Yes, Murphy’s Mushu did it; for that matter, so did Dwayne Johnson’s Maui and Robin Williams’s Genie. But Sisu is a primordial creature who ought to carry about her something of the prologue’s paradise lost—something of the world Chief Benja yearns to see restored. She’s not a comic-relief sidekick like Mushu. Nor does she come across as inscrutably larger than life, like the trickster Maui or the Genie. She’s just cheerfully nice and not very smart or savvy.
The difficulty of creating images of mythic goodness comparable to images of mythic evil is perennial. It’s always been easier to invoke demons onscreen than angels. Here, though, the quip-laden slang feels as much like a lack of trust as a lack of vision. To play it straight is to risk eyerolls; irony is cynicism insurance.
One of the best things about Raya, like Zootopia, is the world in which it is set and the care and attention to detail that went into the design and realization of its various regions, each with its own style of architecture, clothing, weaponry, and so on. From the giant bamboo forests of Spine to the rustic floating markets of Talon to the imposing colonnades of Fang, Kumandra is an imaginative triumph that is at the same time rooted in Southeast Asian reality.
Yet the mythic storytelling mode conflicts with the naturalistic treatment of cultural diversity and intergroup bias, which was actually handled better in Zootopia.
Zootopia’s heroine starts out with naive ideas about post-predatory utopian harmony, but quickly learns that reality is messier than she thought; she is even obliged to confront the prejudices in her own heart. A contrived crisis in predator-herbivore relations is averted, but even in the upbeat ending the heroine acknowledges that the world is still no utopia, though it’s important to keep trying.
Here is the Raya’s most intractable problem: It’s a story about the importance of trust that spends nearly all its running time establishing that trust is for chumps and you’ll get suckered every time. Then it asks its characters to turn around and trust everything to someone who betrayed their trust again and again. It’s about redemption without work and reconciliation without reckoning.
Unlike Zootopia, Raya can’t end with a balanced, realistic acknowledgement that real life is messy but we have to keep trying. Genre conventions demand the climatic defeat of the Druun and the return of the dragons—Kumandra’s paradise lost restored. Yet how can human discord be banished from society by magic stones and water beasties, or even by a single, dramatic act of trust among a few key characters?
The more you think about the mythology, the less sense it makes. Why did Sisu’s use of the Dragon Gem in the prologue leave the other dragons stone and banish Sisu herself to who knows where, while things go quite differently at the climax?
If Moana had similar mythological weaknesses, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrical brilliance and Dwayne Johnson’s outsize charisma cover a multitude of sins. Raya and the Last Dragon is not without its pleasures, but they aren’t in the same league.
Steven D. Greydanus is a permanent Deacon of the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the film critic for the National Catholic Register. He also co-hosts the Gabriel Award-winning TV show Reel Faith for New Evangelization Television in Brooklyn.
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