If there was one thing that the pandemic year of 2020 has shown us about the craft of filmmaking, it’s the resilience that the industry somehow has managed to find within itself to keep things moving. While distribution has been forever changed, shifting from theatrical to streaming over the course of the year, it has not deterred filmmakers and crew from continuing to do their jobs even while the pandemic was still raging on. During the early days, the pandemic did grind everything to a sudden halt, and production was shut down for months. But, adapting to the difficulties of the times, the film industry found a way to not only restart up quickly, but they managed to do so in a way that managed to keep everyone safe while on set, strictly following all the protocols needed to stop the spread of infection. And it’s a good thing too, as keeping production on ice for the full length of this pandemic would have been devastating for Hollywood. There needs to be a constant flow of production and output to keep this town alive, and putting everything on hold not only put thousands of people out of work, it creates a backlog jam as more and more projects are delayed. While on set production has it’s own demands that needed time to be put in place, the one part of the film industry that managed to continue full steam ahead without delay was animation. Considering that an animated movie is primarily constructed with the aid of computers, it was a sensible move that many animation studios shifted to remote work, having animators and other staff complete their work from the comfort of their own home. And because of that, animation has managed to not only survive in this pandemic effected economy, but even thrive.
One of the clearest signs of this has been the surprising box office success of Dreamworks Animations The Croods: A New Age (2020). Though it’s may not be reflected in the total box office numbers (which are low compared to animated films from Dreamworks in years past), but The Croods sequel’s resilience in the pandemic stricken box office ever since it’s Thanksgiving weekend release has gotten some notice. It has remained a Top 5 fixture at the box office ever since it’s release, including several weekends at the top, and even outperformed the heavily hyped Wonder Woman 1984 (2020). And a large part of why this has been the case is because the market still remains strong for family entertainment, which bodes well for the theatrical industry. It’s an encouraging sign that a movie like The Croods can still pull in a $50 million plus gross even with the biggest markets of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco still on lockdown. Dreamworks was able to benefit from the shortened theatrical window deal that AMC and Universal put together, so you can expect that the digital rentals for The Croods helped to make that movie a further financial hit. But the fact that even with the streaming option Croods still performed well at the box office has to be a positive signal that a recovery for theatrical exhibition is likely to happen once the pandemic is over. Because of this promising development, it has given animation studios the confidence to continue to move full steam ahead, even though the pandemic is still not yet over. The studios are cautious, depending on multiple platforms for release in order to give people safe options, but they are no longer holding back in a wait and see game anymore. And that is a positive sign as the king of all animation studios, Disney, has now delivered their newest animated epic to both theaters and streaming; Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).
Raya and the Last Dragon is a definite departure from the fairy tale trappings of past animated films from Disney. Here, the story centers in a mystical realm that’s based heavily on Southeast Asian cultures. There is a kingdom called Kumundra that encircles a mighty river that is shaped like a dragon, and each part of this kingdom is named after a different part of a dragon’s body: Tail, Talon, Spine, Heart and Fang. 500 years ago in the past, a sentient plague known as Druun began to spread across the land, turning every living being into stone. The kingdom however was saved thanks to dragon magic that reversed the Druun’s curse and restored life to all the humans, but left the dragons still cursed in stone. Many years later, the leader of the Heart Kingdom, Lord Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) seeks to restore unity between the warring nations of Kumundra. However, the different nations want the power of the last dragon stone, which is housed in the Heart Kingdoms’ fortress, for themselves. A fight ends up leaving the dragon stone shattered, which causes the Druun to reemerge. Lord Benja succumbs to the curse after sacrificing his life to save his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). Six years later, a grown Raya seeks to reverse the Druun’s presence in the land by finding the last living dragon. Searching all the way to the end of the Dragon’s Tail, she finds the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), who can’t make the Druun go away herself, but does in fact have have the ability to restore the stone. So, Raya and Sisu embark on a mission to find the other shards of broken Dragon stone, and they are helped along the way by different members of the Kumundra tribes; a young fishing boat captain in the Tail region named Boun (Izaac Wang) a baby Talon girl named Noi (Thalia Tran) who survives as a con artist, and the sole surviving member of the Spine tribe, Tong (Benedict Wong). Meanwhile, the daughter of the Fang chieftain, Namaari (Gemma Chan), a past rival of Raya’s, is also hunting for the dragon stone shards, and is ready to take Raya down in order to posses them. It soon becomes a race to see if they can outrun the curse of the Druun while also learning to trust one another in order to survive together.
The story of Raya and the Last Dragon’s will no doubt be a fascinating one in Disney’s history. Unlike internal struggles that plagued the productions of movies like The Black Cauldron (1985) or The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Raya had to face the uphill battle against an external source of production woes, namely Covid-19. Originally set for a November 2020 premiere, Raya was delayed like everything else, but not too far back. It is kind of remarkable that they managed to put a film this complex together through a remote network, because there’s nothing about the look and feel of this movie that would indicate that there were any production woes at all. Raya and the Last Dragon is an extraordinary polished final product that stands up to the high standards of Disney Animation. Many years from now, you would find it hard to believe that this movie was made outside of the high tech confines of Disney’s Burbank studio and in the home offices of it’s technicians. The Disney Animation team went above and beyond what anyone would expect and crafted what may be in fact one of their most visually stunning movies ever. Given that they had a couple of extra months to work with probably helped, but even still, the necessities of working remotely still made it a challenge for the filmmakers. Directed by Disney vet Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and animation newcomer Carlos Lopez Estrada, the movie has ambition in it’s world building that really sets it apart from other Disney animated features. Though fantasy elements like dragons and magic are nothing new to them, the complexity of a richly detailed culture that is unique to this story is really an impressive thing that the movie manages to accomplish, and do so without leaving the audience overwhelmed. Though the Southeast Asian influence is unmistakable, the fact that they don’t tie it to any specific source, and instead use it as an influence to inform this completely fictionalized world is something incredibly fascinating to watch explored within this movie.
The world of Kumandra is without a doubt the star attraction of this movie. The Disney Animation team did a marvelous job of crafting a world that is both familiar and wholly original. There are so many great ideas for portraying the different cultures of the kingdom of Kumandra that make every new scene of exploration in this world fascinating to watch. Each kingdom lives in it’s own biome, which helps to define the character of that place. The Tail kingdom is a dry desert wasteland, marking an ends of the earth kind of feel. Talon is a cosmopolitan waterfront community that is reminiscent of river markets found in places like Bangkok, Singapore and other major ports of Southeast Asia. Spine is a rugged outpost in snowy mountain forests, with people equally as rugged. But the most impressive visuals are saved for the prosperous Heart and Fang kingdoms. The Heart of Kumandra sits literally at the peak of a massive, donut shaped mountain that is without a doubt the movie’s most striking image. Southeast Asia, particularly on the South China Sea coastlines, have these striking rocky monoliths all over the place, but Raya goes the extra mile into the surreal by putting a massive hole in the center of one and placing a palace on top like a crown. Not to be outdone, the Fang kingdom’s palace is another striking creation, sitting on a massive, rice field terraced mountain top with walls and towers of rigid geometry, similar to the temples and pagodas found in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. What the movie does really well is make this land feel authentic and lived in, without wasting too much time on world building. It doesn’t dwell long in the details, and instead just lets the audience become immersed in the sights, sounds, and even smells of Kumandra. Of all the things that the movie does, this kind of immersive escape into another world is it’s most impressive act.
The movie also features a strong cast to inhabit the film’s world as well. Much like what they did with Moana (2016) a couple years back, their casting choices for the voices of these characters is informed more by a regional connection to this world, and less tied down to any specific nationality. The voices in this movie literally come from all over the world, but they all have ancestry that connects them to the southeast Asian cultures that inspired the world of Kumandra. Among the principle cast, the film manages to gain great chemistry from it’s stars Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina as Raya and Sisu. Tran, who is making the jump over here from her time in the Star Wars universe, was surprising not the original voice for the main character. Originally, Canadian actress Cassie Steele was set to play the part, but was replaced sometime last year with Tran. No reason has been given why, but Kelly Marie Tran does a fine job of picking up the role and making it hers. I especially love the energy she gives in her performance, making Raya pop on screen in a way she might not have otherwise. The voices of Raya’s other companions are also very endearing as well. A particular favorite of mine is Benedict Wong’s performance as Tong. Some of his line readings spoken through his tough guy delivery had me giggling quite a bit. Gemma Chan also brings a nice bit of complexity to her role as Namaari, helping her to become more than just a stock antagonist. I also want to spotlight the incredible efforts of the character animators, particularly the ones who animated the dragon Sisu. It’s got to be a challenge whenever an animator has to bring life to a vocal performance from a comedian like Awkwafina. Comedians perform in a way that is different from other actors and to translate that into an animated character that looks nothing like the performer themselves can’t be easy. Disney’s been in this place before when trying to match the zaniness of Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy. Thankfully, not only do the animators manage to match the comedic tone of Awkwafina’s performance, but they managed to make Sisu an amazingly dynamic presence on screen. It’s another remarkable marriage of vocal performance and animation that stands up strong with the comedic legends that have preceded Awkwafina’s Sisu in the Disney Canon.
With stellar visual and animation, and a lively vocal cast, this movie has all the makings of an all time classic for the studio. And while it definitely is above average, I also have to say that it does fall a bit short of legendary status as well. Raya is top tier when it comes to visuals, and it features a surprisingly rich story line as well. But, what the movie could have used is another polish of the screenplay itself. The script was written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, the latter just coming off the success of Crazy Rich Asians (2018). While the duo do deserve credit for holding together the complexity of this kind of world-building and offer some interesting character development as well, some of the dialogue in the movie is a bit trite and uninspired. In particular, the movie doesn’t have the comedic oomph that other Disney classics have illustrated in the past. There’s one bit in particular about shopping with credit that feels very much out of place and shoehorned into this movie and it took me out of the experience for a bit. Some jokes do land, but they are few and far between, and I feel that a another punch up (possibly with a more comedy minded writer) could have saved some of the pitfalls of this movie. That being said, the actors do their best to make what is on the page as good as it can be. Tran and Awkwafina’s chemistry goes a long way towards making their scenes together work. I also think that one unfortunate thing about the movie is that it leaves out more time to delve deeper into these characters’ stories as well, and in particular, Raya herself. Raya changes very little through the course of the movie and when I thought it would come to a point where she ultimately learns an important lesson, it never happens. She’s sadly one of the less interesting heroines I’ve seen in recent Disney movies; not bad overall, but far less engaging than say Moana or Elsa as a central character. These shortcomings hold back what otherwise could have been one of Disney’s most impressive films ever, and while no where near a failure, it nevertheless feels a bit disappointing overall.
Even still, Raya and the Last Dragon is still a movie well worth seeing. If it’s safe and accessible, this movie is preferably worth going out to the movie theaters to watch. This is a big, epic widescreen kind of movie that really needs the theatrical experience to really do it justice. Thankfully, this movie is getting a theatrical run, but it’s limited in scope given that the pandemic is still ongoing, despite encouraging steps in the right direction. Theaters are still closed here in LA, so I ventured way out of town to visit the Mission Tiki Drive-In once again, but it was worth the drive because I got to see it the way it was intended; on a giant screen. Disney also has made the movie accessible through streaming on Disney+, with the Premiere Access pay-for-view feature that they used last year for Mulan (2020). However, unlike Mulan, Raya gives you a theatrical option, so if you accept the risk, I strongly recommend watching it in a theater because one, it’s looks better than on a TV and two, it’s a better value. I do think that some of the shortcomings of the screenplay do hold it back, but it’s made up for with a richly detailed world and some of the best animation that has ever come from Disney, and that’s saying a lot. It’s also nice that it’s a new movie from them that is something new and original, and not a sequel. It’s also a vast improvement over the lackluster Frozen II (2019). It’s not anywhere near the top of Disney’s animation output, but it’s a worthy inclusion into the ranks of the esteemed Disney canon. I can see Raya becoming a beloved classic for many and it will deserve that honor in many ways. I will especially love to see how well the Southeast Asian community embraces the film, and it will be wonderful to see children from those communities respond to watching their culture be reflected finally in a Disney film. That’s one of the great things about Disney’s drive to portray so many different cultures in their films; it gives a voice and identity to cultures that otherwise go unheralded in animation, and it also educates those of us outside of the culture to the wonderous art, food and people that make up those communities. It’s kind of interesting that the plot of this movie centers around a society broken apart by the ravages of a plague, and it’s all about bridging all of our differences in order to fight against a common threat that affects us all equally. It’s ultimately a movie about a society finding a way to heal itself, and for being one of the biggest new movies in what will be a post-pandemic world, Raya and the Last Dragon’s arrival right now couldn’t be any more pivotal to our times as they are right now.