Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
FIRST IMPRESSION - FEATURE
I've been strict with myself not to watch trailers for movies I'm looking forward to, because I don't like how they offer clues that help me figure out the narrative. I'd prefer to go in and experience the story totally fresh. Now, to open review this with complete hypocrisy, I did watch trailers for Raya. I mean, after all the teasing of concept art from the film, I needed to sink my teeth into the world.
Of course the trailers spoiled it a bit for me, teasing out jokes and the great lessons of the narrative. Having said that, Raya did surprise me. They get to the heart of the story very swiftly and after watching Raya, it wormed it's way into my head.
Not because of any great narrative devices, you can see where the story is heading, but more due to the interesting, multilayered characters and, I can't stress this enough, a deep, expansive world. Even if a huge portion of the people have been turned to stone by the Druun, the lands still feel full of life. The team at Disney nailed it.
The message of the film is anything but subtle, rather it's bashed across your head several times by multiple characters.
My initial, overwhelming thought, after finishing Raya and the Last Dragon, is that it's a really important step forward for Disney Animated Features for a lot of good reasons.
Raya and the Last Dragon breaks the mould of what is expected as there are no songs and for a Disney Princess movie to exist without a traditional romance arc, is astounding. You could almost argue there's no romance in it at all, but rather a love and respect rather than a fairy tail dream.
There is so much I'd like to dig into about the symbology represented in the film from how almost all the stone figures offer out their hands when turned to stone, or the mythology associated with Eastern Dragons, but I think I would love to go read up on the cultures represented and learn more rather than my removed interpretation. I especially love the references to Wayang Kulit, when Raya tells her story at the beginning and also when the Queen of Fang is teaching children. If you're not sure what Wayang Kulit is, it's shadow puppetry technique from Indonesia, Lotte Reiniger was heavily influenced by it for The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
I'm trying to be brief but I've a lot of positive things to say. I'm very impressed by Raya and the Last Dragon. Looking at the offerings of animated features over the past year, you can definitely see a shift toward reflecting the diverse nature of an animated crew and how they want to lovingly help the world understand more of their cultures.
It's not been a dramatic shift, but a slow curving turn with clues laid in each feature since Frozen.
With both Pixar's Soul and then Raya this year, the mainstream entities of animation are really sliding away from traditional narrative tropes in favour of a better, respectful, take on the world. The mainstream is catching on to what so many animated projects have been sliding toward over the passed few years, and at the moment, doesn't get much more mainstream in Animation than a Disney Feature.
What I took away from the feature are the complex female relationships. Namaari and Raya's bittersweet relationship is a cornerstone of the film. It's electric and yet melancholic of the partnership that could be, but was torn away through a sense of duty. Also the way Raya is trying to help Sisu understand the world as it is now, marred by the baggage of her experience, where Sisu has a relentless optimism. There's a beautiful duality to each relationship, showing we are always better together, combining our strenghts.
With CG there's always the advantage to take cinematography to a another level, which Raya does. With such distinct areas realised, moving from location to location does feel like an epic voyage, albeit, because they move so fast, the world does feel smaller. More like a country with divided states rather than a whole world, which is great, because there's also more to explore.
I will say the script feels quite exposition heavy and there are parts I'd much prefer to discover and tease out rather than just be told flatly. It really stumbles in those moments where characters monologue about their past or the world, but I understand that the world created is so dense, they needed to just get those beats out of the way to focus on the quest.
I've not seen a Disney world so fully realised and beautifully rendered. Similar to Frozen II, there seems to be a much wider world still to discover, but unlike Frozen II, the world feels full and not abandoned by civilisation in parts.
I fully recommend Raya and the Last Dragon, and I'm excited to mull over it's world more and more.