‘Raya’ another perfectly enjoyable product of an exhausting, cynical machine

The concept art, at least, is spectacular. Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

7/10 Outside the theater for Raya and the Last Dragon, a survey company stooge hands out questionnaires in cheap plastic bags meant to reassure moms who don’t really understand how COVID-19 spreads. When asked, he tells me all the big movies are doing it. I’m something of an authority on what all the big movies are doing, and I don’t need to be to know that’s a lie, but he clearly doesn’t know anything beyond what he’s told, so I don’t grill him too much.

The survey itself though, which is all about demographic information and how well the viewer connected with each of Raya’s menagerie of characters, tells me plenty. Disney wants hard data on which characters to spin off and who to aim that media at. I can’t imagine why they think a pen-and-paper survey would be an effective way of gathering this data in the age of Twitter fandom, especially for a movie that was available to stream day-of for that hefty $30 premium charge, or why the stooge is handing these things out before the movie where they’ll be largely forgotten in the theater instead of directly after, but the priorities at least make sense.

In Raya and the Last Dragon, Chief Benja of the Heartland (Daniel Dae Kim) and his daughter, Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), invite all the long-warring factions of Kumandra to a great dinner so they may settle their differences. All goes well until the location of the dragon gem, the treasure that protects all of Kumandra from plague and that other states believe brings the Heartland unnatural prosperity, is revealed, and the dinner turns into a free-for-all. In the fighting, the gem is shattered, allowing the druun, purple smoke monsters that turn you to stone, to return.

Six years later, Kumandra is a post-plague wasteland, with the only surviving communities hugging the great serpentine lake that runs through the land – the druun are repelled by water. Based on Fang legend that Sisudartu (Awkwafina), who created the dragon gem and saved the land from the druun five centuries ago, rests at the terminus of one of the lake’s many rivers, Raya searches for the last dragon, who she believes can heal Kumandra once again.

This is routinely referred to as a river, but rivers flow from their sources out into the ocean. This formation appears not to connect to the ocean and instead feed many smaller rivers, making it a lake, but one that still flows somehow – I don’t have to understand the physics of it! It’s a children’s cartoon! But I’m quite sure this body of water could not exist in nature.

If that seems like a lot of pipelaying, that’s because it is. Raya and the Last Dragon has no fewer than three opening acts, first a prologue to set up the dragon gem, then another prologue to set up the dragon gem’s destruction, then a third to introduce Sisu and set up the main status quo of the film, and then the status quo keeps evolving. The task from there is to travel across Kumandra collecting the pieces of the dragon gem so Sisu can reassemble it, so we keep getting a new setting, a new companion and a new one of Sisu’s siblings introduced every 20 minutes or so. It’s one of many things within the runtime to reinforce the impression the survey company stooge gave, that the whole project is mostly intended to set up as many spinoffs as possible, and they just keep mounting.

Periods of Kumandran history are described with dragons, druun, both and neither, so we could set series in any of those periods depending on popularity. The My-Little-Pony modeled dragons all have their own special X-Men powers, which Sisu exhaustively lists every time they’re mentioned, so you can collect them all, just like Sisu herself. As the movie plays on, Raya visits major cities in each of Kumandra’s nations and collects a companion from each of them in turn, so we get plenty of different architecture styles and side characters to populate accompanying children’s books.

Can a movie like Raya and the Last Dragon be good? It can certainly have good things in it. This is a perfectly enjoyable movie. Many positive reviews focus on the animation, which isn’t special, but is at least solid. Awkwafina is delightful. As exhausting as all the history and architecture is, Kumandra feels lived in and alive – once you bushwhack your way through that awkward triple-prologue, at least. The anger and mistrust between Raya and Princess Namaari of the Fang (Gemma Chan) feels fun and real. Raya has a cool sword, and she walks in this awesome pose and, there it is. Raya is an action figure, and this is a soulless, purely commercial exercise once more.

Actors usually have more influence over projects where no one seems to be in charge, and Awkwafina injects a remarkable amount of life as the playful, trusting Last Dragon.

If I were able to engage with and critique this as a movie, whose movie would I be critiquing? Raya and the Last Dragon has four directors, two screenwriters – all directors and writers also get story credit along with two more guys, leading to a jaw-dropping slide of eight story writers – and two editors. It’s not that movies can only work with individuals in their head positions, that’s certainly not the case, but it’s jarring to watch a movie that feels like it was made in a board meeting and then see the entire board listed in the credits.

I’m so tired of having something sold to me every goddamn second. Movies used to be a haven from that – they were the product. Once you got into the theater, you’d already bought what they wanted you to buy, and it was time to enjoy your purchase. But more and more as Disney has taken over the past decade, their films have become networking opportunities, luncheons to sell you on breakout sessions in the form of toys and spinoffs and sequels, all of which are themselves more opportunities to plant more toys and more spinoffs and more sequels, bridges to more products and more content and more avenues to give Disney more money.

Will you enjoy the movie-like process of being sold more things? Sure! Maybe. It’s up to you! It doesn’t really matter. If you didn’t enjoy this bit of content, maybe you’ll enjoy the next one! Disney is meticulously building a library of content with characters of every race and cultural background, so eventually, everyone can enjoy seeing themselves in a cartoon that can be described as “perfectly enjoyable.”

Raya and the Last Dragon, much like Moana five years ago and both iterations of Mulan and Aladdin, is another overt effort by Disney to mold Asian mythology into a commercial-ready format, complete with a princess to populate its parks and plenty of media about what a nice field trip the creative team had – in this case, to the Southeast Asian nations along the Mekong River. Representation is important, but is it still effective when it’s a cynical coat of paint over a by-the-numbers Hero’s Journey narrative with jarring Christian overtones? Well, a lot of Filipino Americans are “feeling seen,” and that’s great.

By far Raya’s most cynical addition is this boss con baby from Talon.

But at the same time, apparently, they didn’t even get the representation right here – Tran, who was born in San Diego to Vietnamese refugees and was the second choice for her role, is the only cast member with actual Southeast Asian heritage. The rest of the cast was born in the English-speaking world to immigrants of mostly Chinese and Korean ancestry, roughly 3,000 kilometers northeast of the Mekong’s source. Does it really matter whether or not castmates for the English track of this animated movie were born to the correct kind of Asian immigrants? Well, folks are mad about it, and that anger feels more justified the more you think about it.

I don’t want to be doing this. I don’t want to be writing exclusively about the commercial elements of a movie or taking surveys of a cast’s racial background because Disney has somehow turned that into a consistently sensitive issue, but Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t the kind of movie I wanted to write about movies for. I want to think of this as a primarily artistic exercise and enjoy the relaxed performances and detailed animation and be happy for the cultures this is a send-up for, but I’m not going to lie to myself when I know this is a product.

I think about the Game of Thrones and MCU and Star Wars fans who justify poor episodes by saying “they’re building up to something.” I think about Ian McKellan breaking down and crying on the set of The Hobbit because he can’t reconcile what he’s being asked to do with “acting.” I think about that 1980s quote from former Disney CEO Michael Eisner on what he really thought about the movie-making business-

“We have no obligation to make Art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, art, a statement, or all three.”

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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