What could have been shared with families in a cineplex must be shared at home. It is an absolute shame since Raya and the Last Dragon is an absolute joy, promoting a message of trust that we all need. There’s a magical formula in youth that Disney knows more than any other children’s animation company. They’re aware not to talk down to their audiences (at least Pixar was for a long time). Simply because they’re children doesn’t mean the emotional development of the viewer is impaired.
At times children know more about compassion than perhaps adults do. The theme of communal trust is something we’ve seen countless times before. When placed through a more adult film lens, movies catered towards our age are marred in everyday life’s cynicism. The emotional residue of optimism is lost amongst our despair. We are embarrassed when a kid’s film makes us a bit more weepy than an R-rated picture because these films harken back to our days of hope.
Despair ties back to Raya and the Last Dragon, along with films of its kind. In Raya’s world, everyone has become dejected, comfortable living in their bubbles. When the different lands of Kumandra could share the magical dragon gemstone, society chose violence and division. What resulted was the Druun turning everyone to stone who fought over the glowing McGuffin. Five hundred years later, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) awakens Sisu (Awkwafina) to restore the stones, giving the Kumandra hope one last time.
Elements of genocide, division, and civil war are in this kids film but are depicted in age-appropriate terms that kids will better understand when adults. For the time being, children learn the simple value of being nice to each other. These universal beliefs have been shared since 1940 with movies like Pinocchio. The story of the loner who wants to fit in, but society has chosen their sides. The results of this theme have evolved for the better little by little over the years.
In 2021 we have a close to all-female cast of Asian descent, which is an incredibly long feat since the days of Aladdin. There was a controversy regarding most of the cast not being of Southeast Asian descent since the movie takes place there. I’m glad that it’s not a bunch of white people from California pretending to be from Southeast Asia, tacking on stereotypical offensive accents. The director choice is between Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, and John Ripa. That makes three white guys and one Latino. I would think if you’re seeking controversy, then look there, not in the casting.
What matters is the subject of the film itself. The lack of diversity in directorial hires is an issue Disney is tackling at this very moment. Look no further than Deborah Chow, Rick Famuyiwa, and Chloé Zhao. There’s still a majority of white directors, but it’s a start. What’s in the frame is terrific. We have a mixture of traditional 3D animation compiled with moments of 2D for expository scenes. The movie is an homage to the very samurai pictures and spaghetti westerns that influenced Star Wars. The pacing works just right where we don’t spend too much nor too little time with each character. Thank goodness we don’t spend a more significant amount of time with Sisu as Awkwafina’s riffs can be irritating at times.
Raya and The Last Dragon isn’t a perfect film. The conventional trappings of a predictable Disney narrative are still present. You know where all the roads will lead before we get to the end of it. At times, the likability factor was cranked much too high to win the crowd’s hearts with these characters. With that said, I have minor grievances with this movie. What Disney has done right for generations, they do right again here. Raya and the Last Dragon is a beautiful film for all ages to not only be entertained by but to learn the value of empathy.