Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I’ve noticed that my recent problem with viewing Disney films is that I judge them all against my favourite movie of all time – Moana. So when I look at Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s latest animated installment, I put it on a scale of Moana to Not Moana, and find it sitting in the Not Moana category. This oversimplified way of looking at things does this movie no justice. Raya is a really good film, and their best so far since Moana came out almost five years ago.
Her family betrayed and an ancient evil called the Druun released across the land, the princess Raya travels across the desolate landscape in search of Sisu, the last dragon, in the hopes of once and for all vanquishing the Druun from her homeland of Kumandra.
Even from the plot synopsis it’s evident that this movie veers in significant ways from the Disney princess formula, something they had been doing more and more drastically in recent installments. One notable difference from pretty much every movie featuring a princess is that this movie was not a musical. A bold move, likely a calculated play for new audiences, but something this Disney fan personally found lacking, especially considering the rich cultural inspirations the movie draws upon. This whole soundtrack issue isn’t exactly helped by the fact that they hired James Newton Howard to score the music for Raya, his previous Disney projects being in the height of Disney’s second dark ages with Dinosaur, Atlantis and Treasure Planet. So while the lack of new earworms may be seen by some as a welcome relief and by me as sorely missed, overall there is a lot to enjoy in Raya.
The animation itself is absolutely stunning. From the nightmarish Druun, to the landscapes of Kumandra, to the dragons themselves, everything was etched in gorgeous detail. My only regret is that I hadn’t been able to see it in movie theatres in all of its intended glory. What they do with fabric, water and grass in this movie makes you wonder where animation goes from here. But then again, I myself this marveling at the ocean in Moana and here we are with Raya five years later setting new standards.
The outstanding animation also applies to the character design. Raya and Sisu, both in her dragon form and human form (which is basically just an animated Awkwafina with funky hair, something that sounds like it can get really old really fast, but doesn’t) stole the show. Raya felt real, from her hair, to her eyes and to the clothes and weapons, another step in realistic design without crossing into the uncanny valley. Sisu’s face at times gave me strong Nick Wilde from Zootopia vibes but other than that, the dragon was vibrant, elegant and endearing. The supporting cast, too was well-crafted – the characters were original and when they were on screen the eye never tired of seeing them – searching them for new details and appreciating the ones that were already noticed.
The formerly united land of Kumandra with its five existing kingdoms of Heart, Fang, Tail, Spine and Talon was also laid out in intricate detail, each landscape coming off as unique but at the same time forming a coherent whole. This though, is where one notices that the scope of the movie is both too grand and too small. The plot moves through the five lands too quickly, not allowing each location to fully shine for the viewers. Similarly, while Raya faces great challenges, her personal growth does not seem to reflect the scale of the adventure when compared to other Disney protagonists. In fact, Namaari, her foil in the film, undergoes more interesting personal challenges.
A word also needs to be said about Disney’s latest attempt to inject the much-needed diversity into the films they produce. While I don’t come from any of the cultures represented in Raya, so I can’t comment on how well they’ve done, it’s refreshing to see that others may also find themselves reflected in a movie that so many families and children will end up seeing.
Overall, if you’re going to have a family viewing of Raya, or if you’re a hardcore Disney nerd, it’s well worth the $30 price tag. While not one of the undoubtedly strongest entries in their 21st century canon, it is a great reminder that Disney is still there at the forefront of great animation and storytelling.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.