(RAYA premieres on Disney+ Premiere March 5th and in limited release across Finland.)
After the fall
Six years after an apocalyptic event has left the world a desolate wasteland, former protector of the dragon gem, Raya, makes her way across the kingdoms in a desperate search for the spirit of the last remaining dragon. On her quest, she’ll make new friends, encounter vicious enemies, and learn lessons with extremely muddled morals that weigh down the entire narrative.
On the surface, RAYA owes a lot to everyone and has very little originality to its name. It liberally borrows from every mythology from the East while also picking the occasional plot thread from classic anime like PRINCESS MONONOKE and NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND. The animal sidekicks, a Disney staple, remind of the far superior MOANA. Simultaneously, a shallow father-daughter relationship is so generic it could fit into any narrative from the House of Mouse.
A superb cast
It’s thanks to two winning performances the film doesn’t flounder from the start. Kelly Marie Tran, who stole hearts in THE LAST JEDI, is perfect as the headstrong but emotionally closed-off Raya. The always charming Awkwafina is likewise stellar casting as Sisu, the last dragon. Everything from her animation to the pitter-patter delivery of dialog is the closest we’ve gotten to the joyous and previously unmatched performance from Robin Williams in Aladdin. Early on, as the story keenly focuses on the duo’s road trip, you could swear this was another classic in the making.
But RAYA very quickly loses its path and turns way too hectic. The cast grows exponentially, and nobody gets the kind of treatment they deserve as characters. There’s Namaari (Gemma Chan), Raya’s childhood friend turned rival. A baby who is also a con artist. A hustler chef and sea captain who is twelve (Izaac Wang). Even Benedict Wong shows up as a traumatized warrior with a handful of lines, which he delivers with pathos and conviction, but his character remains an empty vessel for a few sight gags.
On top of that, there’s the story of Raya trying to return the world to normality, Sisu attempting to find her lost brothers and sisters, and Namaari confronting her domineering mother. It’s all too much for one film, and as a result, none of the storylines leave a lasting impact.
More troubling are the muddled politics of a film that, on the surface, tries to skirt any political topic entirely. The villains, for example, aren’t quite villains; there’s no love interest, no singing or dancing, and the heavy-handed message rings even clearer the further the plot progresses. But because the setup is so traditional and because the film trades so deeply in myth, it creates an uncomfortable juxtaposition before too long.
For the past 500 years, the world of Kumandra has split into five factions. Tail, Spine, Fang, Talon, and Heart. Each a distinct stereotype from the other spread across vastly different biomes. The map and the production design imply a more than passing resemblance to Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Simmering from within man and born from their evil, a malevolent force called The Druun once threatened to destroy the entire world. Now, as the warring tribes destroy the dragon gem, splitting it into multiple pieces, The Druun once again return, hellbent on turning all life into stone.
It’s a simple concept, and The Druun are a good menace to have in the story. They’re faceless entities of purple energy, violently roaming the countryside like a swarm of locusts. They have no identity or politics, meaning there’s nothing to do but fight them. But the narrative often repeats that they come out of the distrust and evil that lives in everyone. The story does not attempt to hide the fact that one tribe, in particular, is responsible for the calamity.
But RAYA’s interests lie elsewhere, turning the narrative into a statement about perpetual understanding, even in the face of annihilation. Even the worst odds are overcome by meeting halfway, it suggests. But it’s hard to accept such a thesis when the opening half enforces the vision of a dangerous, violent world where the last six years have been under the heel of an oppressor.
The concept itself is interesting and entirely worth exploring. How far does forgiveness go? Where lies the point of no return, even for the greater good? They’re heavy concepts, potentially too much for a film where the target audience is primarily there for Awkwafina’s colorful antics. Every time it seems the story gets too dark, someone throws a shrimp at another. But as it tries to sermon about understanding, it still introduces evil-looking people as clear villains who face immediate karmic comeuppances. I guess meeting them halfway isn’t necessary.
It might be overthinking things, especially since RAYA itself doesn’t seem to care about slowing down for them. Instead, it focuses on the gorgeous visuals, immaculate fight choreography, and spectacular soundtrack by James Newton Howard. They’re all Disney at their finest.
I just wish the rest of the film was too.