REVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon

*WARNING: MILD SPOILERS*

Disney’s new Raya and the Last Dragon introduces us to the titular heroine, Raya, as she navigates a fractured society in order to find the scattered remnants of a magical orb which holds the power to banish evil beings called Druun from the world. The film is available for purchase now, and will eventually be free with a Disney+ subscription later on this year. Raya’s adventure takes us into different regions of a land previously called Kumandra, all of which are home to different warring tribes. The film suffered a bit in terms of the storyline, dialogue, and character development, but it still managed to be a fairly entertaining movie about the importance of trust.

The film opens with an introduction to the new world that Disney has created, which is a land with a large river (which is shaped like a dragon) running through it. The audience is introduced Raya, who promptly sends us into a flashback sequence where she describes how the world got so messed up. We see a young Raya training with her father, who is the leader of her tribe and the guardian of the Dragon Gem. After a training session, Raya’s father tells her that the other tribes are headed for their home, and asks her what she would do in response if she were leading. The scene that follows is definitely meant to serve as exposition to try to build the world as quickly as possible. Raya describes the various tribes and assumes that they are about to go to war. Her descriptions are full of stereotypes and negative interpretations of the other tribes’ ways of life, which is where I took my first issue with the film. I’m under the impression that this scene was meant to be harmless, and was just meant to introduce us to the other tribes of Kumandra, but I couldn’t help feeling like Raya had been educated to hate the other tribes, and that we as an audience were just supposed to roll with it. I would have felt a little better if Raya’s stereotypical views were challenged later on in the film, but for the most part, that dialogue seemed to be brushed under the rug and left for the audience to interpret. I thought that this could have been a good opportunity for Disney to explicitly state that we need to educate ourselves in regard to our biases and views of people who are different from us, but it just fell flat. For instance, one of the tribes is called Spine, and Raya states that it is full of big strong meatheads who are violent and stupid. The character from Spine is named Tong, and he is actually the most articulate character, using very descriptive vocabulary when speaking. We also learn that Tong was a father, and that he is a good and loving parent, but the stereotype that Raya held about his people is never challenged while he is on screen. Tong’s character instead leans into that stereotype through the rest of the film, and many of the other members of the different tribes do the same.

Another issue I had with the film was the introduction of conflict. In Raya’s description of Kumandra, she literally says that the reason that the tribes are fighting over the Dragon Gem is “people being people,” which rubbed me the wrong way. This seemed like a cop-out in order to not have to give the characters from the other tribes any motivation. All of the tribes were trying to steal the Dragon Gem from Raya’s home, and we are never given a clear reason as to why. There are subtle references to Raya’s home having an abundance of resources as a result of having the Dragon Gem, which Raya says isn’t true, and her father agrees with her. A character from the tribe of Fang said that they “had’t had rice in a while,” which would indicate that there may have been famine in the regions outside of Raya’s home, but we are never shown if that it true or not. Again, I think this is a missed opportunity by Disney. It seems like the writers were trying to set up a conflict where the antagonists were as relatable and understandable as the protagonist, resulting in a climax where they realized that they were more alike than different, but we just aren’t shown why the other tribes even wanted the Gem in the first place. Even Raya’s father wanted the Gem to stay in their tribe, as he guarded it with his life. I think it could have been a good opportunity to explore the idea of hoarding wealth instead of sharing it among the people. If the other tribes believed that the Gem could fix the problems in their region, why not let them borrow it for a while? Why guard it with your life? And most importantly, why educate the youth of your tribe to view outsiders as untrustworthy and evil? I was left with a lot of questions, and I felt that the storyline wasn’t as fleshed out as it could have been. There seemed to be nods to other drafts of the script scattered through the film, and I wonder if some of those ideas were left on the cutting room floor.

Now for some good things about the movie. Disney is obviously trying to flex their animation abilities with this film. The scenes are very aesthetically pleasing, and some of the effects on rocks, plants and wood are borderline photorealistic. We could see some of this popping up in Frozen 2 with very well-rendered rocks and water. I felt that this film was especially an ode to the animators’ ability to animate water, every use of water in the film is stunning. We see waterfalls, rivers, rain, and even droplets of anti-gravity magic water. The characters all seemed to be based off of rudimentary shapes, one being a triangle, another being a square, and another being an oval, which I though was an interesting way to construct the bodies of the characters and make them all a little bit more unique looking. One interesting aspect of the credits was the acknowledgement that the film was completed from 400 different homes because of the restrictions due to Covid-19. This is no doubt an impressive feat, but I can’t help but wonder if this may have contributed to some of the issues in the storyline and dialogue. I’m sure that folks were stressed, in need of motivation, and unable to communicate as effectively as they would have been able to had they been in person. After thinking on it for a while, I decided that I was more impressed with the movie after seeing that acknowledgement, and I respect the team’s determination in making a film through this struggle.

At first, I was a little disappointed with Raya and the Last Dragon, and I thought that it missed the mark when it had a lot of potential behind it. It was a little choppy, a little rushed, and a little unfocused. The characters were underdeveloped, but ultimately we knew what they were somewhat like by the end of the film. The story seemed like a list of chores to check off instead of having compelling motives for the characters, but we understand why the characters need to unite in the end (for the most part). The animation was gorgeous (even though the dragons seemed a bit out of place in the world), and the movie mirrors the real life unity and determination that the team displayed in order to create something bigger than themselves. If you’re looking for a lighthearted film to pass some time with friends or family, Raya and the Last Dragon is worth checking out (especially once it comes out for free with the Disney+ subscription). 6.5/10

*Raya and the Last Dragon costs $29.99 for early access, it will be available to all Disney+ subscribers from June 4th.*

REVIEW: The Dig (2021)

The Dig focuses on excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) as he works on a site in Britain in 1939, owned by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan). The driving force of the film becomes the people who are brought to the site as they unearth an ancient artifact. We’re given glimpses into the lives of incredibly complex individuals, all who have their own internal and external struggles, and the only thing that has brought them all together is the dig site in the countryside.

Without giving too much away, I’d like to praise this movie as much as possible. From the beginning you can see how beautiful the film is, the sprawling landscapes of grass and trees, slightly obscured by morning mist or shrouded in a thick fog, the billowing clouds full of rain allowing only the most brilliant sunbeams to pass through, and quite frankly the dirt which looks so rich and velvety that you want to be there, in the film, just to dig your own hands into the gorgeous earth. I was blown away again and again by the scenery, and if nothing else, the film is worth the watch just to look at how beautiful nature can be. On top of that, the performances given by Mulligan and Fiennes are spectacular, and both are able to make the audience feel the way the characters are feeling, sometimes incredibly excited, other times extremely frustrated or full of existential sorrow.

One thing that I absolutely loved about the film was its spirituality and how it reminds us of our place in the universe. Each character has to wrestle with the idea that they are impermanent, that in a thousand years they will be forgotten, and all that will remain of them are some fragments of their possessions. We can see characters greedily cling to things that will preserve their past, which creates a dynamic between some upper class individuals and some of the workers on the site. Some of the highly educated want the glory associated with making such a momentous discovery, but those who actually did the work learn to let go. The characters that we sympathize with are those who realize that they are playing their part in an intergenerational saga. They aren’t meant to live forever as a famous name in history, they’re meant to live their lives and create a history for all of us to learn about.

I would encourage everyone to watch this movie. While it is admittedly quite Eurocentric (which I think is to be expected from a period piece based on a true story which took place in Britain), it delivers justice to hardworking people and critiques the upper class’s desire for self preservation. I think you would be hard pressed not to be sucked into the storyline within the first fifteen minutes of watching, and until you’re invested, the imagery will keep you more than satisfied. If you like to see how brilliant actors can be, watch Fiennes in the first opening scenes, listen to his accent and recognize that this is the same person who played Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise (what a range!). Stay for Mulligan’s beautiful transformation as she struggles with letting go of her son, and the drama that develops when Lily James’ character is introduced at the halfway point of the film. The more I think of this movie, the more I realize how brilliant it really was, the direction, writing, sound design, and acting are all phenomenal. If I were to keep writing I’m sure I would give too much away, so I’ll contain myself and stop for now. If you can, please watch this movie, I’m sure you won’t regret it. 10/10