I was frustrated that Disney’s main marketing blitz for Raya and the Last Dragon featured a Variety spread about Kelly Marie Tran surviving Star Wars bullying … when the studio also allowed her to be sidelined in her second film in that franchise. Say what you want about Disney, but they know how to play to all audiences at all times. The potency of internet fandom in all directions is a valuable marketing cudgel, particularly for a film like Raya, a middling CGI adventure film that feels like a minor animated release now saddled with the responsibility of being Disney’s first “big” simultaneous theatrical / Disney+ release. Maybe it sounds conspiratorial to say Disney was leveraging its pressure on the festering wound of the sequel trilogy to market Raya, but it certainly feels that way. I guess that’s just how things are now.
Raya feels like a reflection of a lot of other trends, too, and not all of them taken to their ideal extent. It’s set in the world of Kumandra, a fantasy-land amalgamation of several Southeast Asian cultures. I do not know enough about Southeast Asia to tell you if this is done well or not and I’m not going to try. Raya (Tran) is the daughter of her tribe’s chief, Benga (Daniel Dae Kim), who wishes to bring all the tribes together. The other tribes do not necessarily agree, and events transpire that allow an evil spirit called the Druun to lay waste to Kumandra and its five lands. It’s up to Raya and a dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina) to travel across Kumandra, collecting shards of an orb that will allow them to restore Kumandra and the tribes hurt by the Druun.
Along the way, Raya comes into conflict with Namaari (Gemma Chan), an equally fierce warrior princess who has undeniable dramatic chemistry with Raya. It’s the sort of relationship Disney frequently introduces but never allows to blossom into actual romance. It underscores the fact that despite occasional strides in the right direction regarding representation, Disney maintains its family films’ aim at a heteronormative depiction of love. Some might argue that the story of Raya doesn’t need a romance because kids don’t care about it, which is maybe a focus-group truth. However, I don’t think the target audience of Raya is simply kids with parents. The complexity of the world, the number of characters introduced, the dark themes, the lack of music and the constant exposition make the film feel clearly aimed at a pre-teen or teen audience — an audience demographic that has moved pop-cultural mountains over their thirst for diverse depictions of romance, for romantic and sexual tension (particularly between rivals). The closest comparison I can come up with to Raya is the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, another American-produced epic that incorporates elements of Asian cultures. Avatar, and its sequel, Korra, notably understood the need for romantic tension, even in the simplest ways.
It may be a nitpick that Raya and Namaari don’t hold hands at the end of the story, but I think that decision reflects the broader issue with the movie: It’s too busy. They travel to five lands, gain five companions and are constantly talking about what they’re going to do next (or fighting). Fellow critic Lou Harry and I were chatting about Raya, and he commented that he missed the songs because in these films songs give characters internal life. While we may just be inclined to the Disney movies of our respective earlier days (he has quite a few more of those than I do, and the perspective to match), I think he’s on the money with Raya. We rarely get to know the characters on a deeper level. There’s little grace to the movie’s story. It is simply too busy, too urgent to elaborate on a world much too large and a cast spread too thin.
Honestly, it feels very much like an entire season of a show like Avatar, blended into a single two-hour movie.
The animation is, of course, gorgeous, and the voice acting is what you would expect from a cast featuring Tran, Awkwafina, Chan, Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong and Alan Tudyk. These are recognizable faces putting on recognizable voices in a story that allows them to talk quite a bit. All signs point to Raya being a labor of love amongst those who crafted it. I wish it felt like more than another decently made but otherwise forgettable (dare I say standard?) mid-spring release by Disney.