We watched Raya and the Last Dragon twice, over two weekends. I really enjoyed, SHE WHO WILL NOT BE BLOGGED enjoyed it, the kid really enjoyed it. The animation was varied and beautiful. My kid and I watch a lot of animation and there is so much that is just “flat,” especially digital animation, that it’s a bit shocking to see animated characters in Disney/Pixar films appear to be imbued with actual spirit. Raya‘s characters felt lifelike, even the Con-baby, Noi, and her monkey helpers.
Heck, even Sisu, the titular dragon, both in her human and animal forms, had facial expressions that mimicked convincingly those of the actress who played her.
There’s a part of me, a big part, that really hates Disney. As a media corporation, they hold an outsized influence on what TV shows and Films get made. With the purchase of Fox, Disney’s intellectual property holdings are too deep and wide to be of any benefit to the world. Disney has for years embargoed films, holding back huge chunks of their catalogue from DVD/Blu-ray distribution, TV, and second run or revival theaters. They’ve extended this to the Fox world. Unless you’ve got the DVD lying around, thousands of movies are not available to view until Disney says so. They’re goosing scarcity. Disney executives are not creatives in any real sense. They’re not filmmakers or artists. They are asset managers.
Still, I can’t help it. I do look forward to a Disney film. Most of my childhood movie memories are focused on Disney films. Tron was my first VHS. My Dad loved the shorts and Fantasia. I have very fond memories of family trips to both US parks. So we ponied up the $29.95 (after the barrage of commercials on Kid Youtube, this amounts to extorsion) to view the film early from our Covid Bunker.
If you haven’t seen the trailer or read any of the blogs or seen tweeters tweeting about sticker shock or Awkwafina‘s accent as Sisu, the Last Dragon:
500 years earlier, the land of Kumandra – a world that’s design was heavily influenced by East Asian cultures – fractured. Each tribe – Fang, Tail, Spine, Talon, and Heart – longed for the power of the Dragon Gem, the last remaining bit of magic from Dragons, all turned to stone by dark monsters knows and the Droun. The legend told that the dragon Sisu had crafted the Gem from her own magic and used it to defeat the Droun, saving the world for humans. The tribes fought for control of the Dragon Gen and Heart won. Pre-Droun harmony never returned.
Raya, the protagonist and one of the film’s heroes, and her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) are the protectors of the Dragon Gem. She’s spent years training for her role and she knows one day she’ll take over for her father. Her first big test, as a protector of the Gem and as a tribal leader, is a meeting in Heart of all the tribes, a rare and exceptional event. Benja has a dream to reunite the people of Kumanadra. Raya has her doubts; she has a healthy distrust of the tribes, especially Fang. Still, she respects the dreams of her father and does all she can to build bridges by taking Namaari, Fang princess, in hand.
Fang, though, has no desire to make peace. Namaari takes advantage of Raya’s offer of friendship and let’s Fang soldiers into the vault where the Dragon Gem is kept. In the fight over the Gem, it shatters shatters into 5 pieces, each tribe takes a piece, and the Droun are released from the Dragon magic containing them. They again turn the people to stone, including Raya’s father.
Kumandra reunification is now more distant that it was before.
6 years later, an older Raya (now voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and a now-giant Tuk-Tuk1 are on the hunt for the Dragon Gem pieces. To put them back together and free the world from the Droun, she needs a Dragon, and the tales she has heard from Fang is that Sisu is still alive. Together, Raya and Sisu start to but Kamandra back together.
Fantasy stories where the protagonist acquires her skills through learning in practice – rather than given by a benevolent god-creature or some as-yet-unknown core essence – are incredibly important to me and I love sharing them with my girl. And, of course, I’m a sucker for any story where a daughter learns core ideals from her parents, and uses those skills and ideas to blaze her own path. Moana is a great template; she’s her own woman at the end of that movie, not a mini version of her father, the Chief. My girl has power, but it’s our job together to build it up.
Raya worked hard to earn her power, helped along by a framework and instruction that valued bringing people together to find a solution to common problems, rather than simply vanquishing her enemies or, worse yet, helping some dude realize his full potential and supporting him as he does violence in service of peace.
What’s more interesting is that Raya is not an unstoppable force. She doesn’t have all the answers, is often wrong, and her skills are rusty. And that’s okay. Namaari hands Raya her ass during their first real battle. It’s not her fists or hits that get her out of that jam. It’s her traveling companions – her friends – who work together to help her out. This theme is carried throughout, up to the end. No matter how strong one person is, we can’t do it alone. Raya can’t save the world by herself; the tribes do have to come together to defeat the Droun. She has to let go of her doubt and believe that even her sworn enemy will do the right thing if she has faith in them. This is powerful stuff.
This is a strange comparison, but I really love the film Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. I don’t think I had really recognized until I saw that film that most films, even Hollywood “female” movies, cater to my “gaze.” Booksmart didn’t give two shits what *I* thought about the women portrayed or their complicated relationships and I have tried to seek out more films that do the same.2 Raya and Namaari, and Namaari and her own mother, have complex relationships I am glad that my girl can see in a movie all the ways that women can interact with each other, with out worrying about how a man perceives them.
Lastly: Daniel Dae Kim and Kelly Marie Tran have authentic, believable voices. Honestly, they should do all the voices in everything. All of the podcasts, all of the documentaries.