source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The behemoth that is Walt Disney Animation Studios seems destined to outlive us all. It’s been producing movies since 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and with 59 movies in the bag and a brand that sells itself, it’s showing no signs of slowing.

There’s been change, of course. Reconfiguring and updating its formula is a necessary part of survival, so for all its classics there’s also plenty of partial successes, half steps, and tentative efforts.

The studio has been on an upswing of late, responding to the constant critiques that their movies are outdated with a series of films where princesses save the day and larger cultural problems are examined. These are still movies aimed at kids, mind you, so none of their takes have been or ever will be complex, but they’ve represented a semi-serious effort to step into a world that’s more recognizable to the families they serve.

Even in this age of progress, Raya and the Last Dragon is one of the studio’s bigger steps. In a move away from white characters and the lore of Western culture, the movie follows the titular princess Raya (a perfectly cast Kelly Marie Tran) as she attempts to reassemble a dragon gem, fight off the monsters threatening her world, and reunite a divided people. Basically, she’s got a lot to do in one movie, all while shoehorning in key ingredients of the Disney recipe and turning many others on their head.

The larger dealings with the world they chose, which is a fantasy realm inspired and populated by Southeast Asian people (although the main voice cast doesn’t follow this too well), is indicative of the vast, unfulfilled promise of the movie. Always excelling in the animation department, the team takes full advantage of the magical elements, creating a chilling but not too scary cloud monster that turns people into stone and a bright, slithery dragon that serves as the main wisecracking sidekick to Raya’s adventure (naturally, they got Awkwafina to voice it). They even take some nice inspiration from action movies for the fight sequences, which largely consists of hand-to-hand combat and are some of the more intense battles in Disney history.

But even as the look of this film washes over you, its lackluster, predictable plot will have you tapping your fingers. It’s here where Disney standards really take over, and their weight nearly sinks the whole ship.

I mean, anyone who’s seen a Disney movie before knows that a kind parent has a massive target on their back. Death or magical curse of beloved family members is a motivation they’ve returned to again and again, same as they always give the hero an adorable pet-like sidekick (in this case it’s a giant pill bug named Tuk Tuk, who is, I cannot emphasize this enough, incredibly adorable). Pair these familiar elements with a plot that puts surprisingly simple obstacles in Raya’s way and there’s just not much that can be developed organically into a suspenseful plot. A feeling of inevitability saps much of the luster from Raya, especially when the word “trust” is repeated for the millionth time and you begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, that’s a key theme.

Even more frustrating is the glimmers of something far more interesting buried within. Flecks of boldness made it through what was almost certainly a laborious script process (that Disney brand doesn’t just manifest itself), most notably in the very assured, capable characterization of the young women who face off. Raya gets the title, but just as key to the story is her rival from another land, Namaari (Gemma Chan). Both are princesses but neither fit Disney’s usual mold, even in comparison to recent counterparts like Elsa and Moana. There’s no journey of self-discovery for either of them and no need for them to learn their abilities. Instead, they face off at full strength in a battle for control of their world, and their sparring makes up the most impressive fights and the most interesting challenges of the movie. 

What’s strange, though, is that their journey of friendship, betrayal, and clashing but entwined interests seems set up for romance, and one feels that if either were a man the movie would go there without question. But Disney is dragging their feet when it comes to queer characters, and I’m unsurprised that they didn’t take the plunge with what is otherwise two of their most progressive young women to date. Maybe if it gets a sequel they’ll make it explicit, or maybe it will only ever exist in the barely veiled subtext we have.

These scraps of something bolder make Raya feel much more safe than it really is. A couple of no holds barred princesses and a whole new world for Disney provided so many opportunities for expansion that it’s disappointing they only took partial advantage. Hopefully they continue pushing forward, because Raya’s only downside is Disney’s self-imposed limitations.

Release: currently available in theaters and on Disney+ for an additional fee

Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada

Writers: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim

Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Izaac Wang, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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