On Set: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Shines When Not Bogged Down by its Message

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts reviews the latest Disney Princess adventure and weighs in on whether the morals are too much for the momentum.
Raya and the Last Dragon
The world-building in “Raya and the Last Dragon” is exquisite, but the dialogue misses more than it hits. (Disney)

by | Mar 5, 2021 | Culture, Film & TV

What makes a typical modern Disney Princess? What are the necessary ingredients? At a bare minimum, they should probably hate being called a princess in the first place—especially by an adult male film critic. But even with that important point fully conceded, there are standard patterns and traits to talk about.

They should be brilliant. They should be plucky. They should question expectations and strain against the limits of their cultures. Love interests are optional, but they definitely need a funny animal sidekick. They need a good voice. And lastly—please forgive my bluntness—they need at least one dead parent, almost always mom.

Not every part of this recipe is necessary in every case. They don’t all sing, for instance. But we are clearly identifying a type here. I don’t fault Disney for going back to this well so often. It works. And the strong female characters they create are undeniably good for us. Keep them coming. It does offer a lot of opportunity for comparison, though.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” takes place in an imaginary land called Kumandra, which, since the fall of their dragon allies, has splintered into several hostile human territories. After the return of the evil Druun monsters that caused the original trouble 500 years earlier, Raya must go in search of a rumored last dragon in hopes of restoring order and uniting Kumandra again.

Let’s start with the world-building, which is exquisite. Fictionally drawn from Southeast Asian traditions, Kumandra was designed by an international team that studied deeply and traveled widely. Together, they crafted a socially rich set of sub-cultures, all bound by an overarching lore that felt special and real. I was particularly impressed with the way the people of Kumandra, regardless of which tribe they were bound to, all responded with quiet reverence to the dragon iconography that underpinned their shared belief system. It’s a small detail, but it’s a level of care you don’t always get in animated stories. The physical space itself is glorious too and genuinely fun to inhabit vicariously. But now we need to address the script.

There are many things you can depend on with Disney, especially when compared to the other big animation studios. One of the ways Disney still distinguishes itself in the field it created is the consistently timely and clever nature of is humor. Disney films almost never feel out of step or forced when it comes to comedy, not like DreamWorks. But “Raya and the Last Dragon” misses way more than it hits with dialogue.

Raya is wonderfully voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, and her interactions with her giant pill bug compatriot are mostly fine. It’s the co-star characters that disappoint. Every mystical being in a Disney film since “Aladdin” has been chasing that lightning Robin Williams found back in 1992. The Rock got very close in Moana. But Awkwafina, as wonderful as she is, doesn’t get there at all as the last dragon, thanks to some pretty clunky and lazy writing. A big part of the problem might be that the screenwriters seemed hell-bent, from the first frame, to get their message of unity and trust across. It’s a good message, of course, but it didn’t need to be so ruthlessly shoehorned into every scene. They had an unbelievable voice cast at their disposal. They should have trusted them—and us—much more.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is most successful when it leans into its own fascinating mythology. And Raya herself is a hero every bit as compelling as Mulan or Merida. See this one for the stunning visuals and uplifting plot. Just don’t expect to laugh as much as usual.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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