Do I love thee? Do I love thee not? Everyone is bowing down to Raya in a story that definitely wouldn’t have worked had this chosen to be the next Disney-princess-musical-adventure. And me not giving this a positive grade…it feels kind of wrong doing that. It gets so much right. If it had some polishes I wish it did, this movie would definitely be added to my favourite-animated-movies list like Onward was.
Another question that arises in this is, is this land called Kumandra, or The Divided Dragon Lands? Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang, and Heart. That’s what each region is called, based on where it is in conjunction with this giant lake-river shaped like a dragon from satellite view. 500 years ago, the world had dragons with mystical powers that protected their land from the druun, described as the opposite of a dragon; druun cause misery and turn people to stone where dragons cause joy and bring life to the world. The last known dragon artifact, an orb, from the final known dragon named Sisu who died way back when, is kept in a secret cavern in Heart. And we’re taught from the father of a 12-year-old Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, one of the finest actresses working today), Chief Benja of Heart, that the reason every other place hates them is they think the orb grants their land more life, and hidden powers. Raya points out that’s ridiculous and it doesn’t do any of that because they have the first-hand knowledge, but the others assume and assume with all their faith. Benja’s dream is that one day they can be known as a unified Kumandra again. The unity idea sadly is not favoured when he invites all four tribes for a meal in hopes of accomplishing, and a sabotage causes the druun to return after five generations.
Raya ends up on her own (apart from her armadillo pig-hybrid Tuk Tuk who had a very big growth spurt at some point) and she spends six years trying to find the artifact that will bring the dragons back and kill the druun, hopefully bringing back all they have turned to statues.
Now, despite some moments that could scare some small children and some moments that will be upsetting for them, this is a movie the whole family can enjoy. It has a message deeper than most of what kids these days look at, primarily because it has a story that resonates with the entire world quite bluntly if you really pay it mind. Its main cast is all Asian, a trend I really appreciate Hollywood is on board for. It has a terrifically paced adventure. It could’ve gone further, but the expressions of the characters and the pauses in dialogue to let them examine themselves and the situation around them are terrific.
So here’s the deal. I show my grades first, and if I shower it with praise at the beginning but still have a negative grade, expect a big “But”. Even though its story idea and message are not just original but thought-provoking for every age group, it’s executed with a noticeable lack of spice. With the movie taking a step forward on action, the step it doesn’t take on leaving the formula is all the more apparent. There were eight writers of this movie, and I got the impression there was clashing between how far the movie was supposed to go with its conflicts and how to go about them. If less people with wallets to fill were in charge of this story, I think I would’ve liked it more.
So, how do I properly explain myself? I think the best way to go forward is to give you lists of what works and what I would’ve changed. And these are going to be spoilers.
Here’s what really works: 1) Raya’s inability to trust. As someone who’s been hurt by people who have taken advantage of my generosity in the past, as well as how life often slams you for not being on board all the time, Raya was a fantastic character. 2) The adventure. As I said, it is fast, it’s well paced, and it feels like a full sort of divided whimsical land as it travels across the different tribes, which leads us to, 3) The crew. Every one of the squad Raya and Sisu accidentally form are fleshed out, not who they appear to be, and kind of unforgettable. 4) Most punches it doesn’t pull, especially with the dynamics of distrust, hate, and greed. 5) Namaari as a character. You love to hate her and yet we lightly see how she’s the protagonist of her own story. 6) The non-musical soundtrack. It’s just breathtaking. 7) Everything positive I mentioned way earlier.
Here’s what I would’ve changed, and there ARE major spoilers here: 1) I would’ve dived more into why Heart has been abandoned all these years, so completely so that the statues are still there. 2) I found it unrealistic that Chief Benja let himself be turned into stone. Injured leg or not, jumping into the water with Raya, he still would’ve had his hands, and he knew the Druun couldn’t get them in water. And, what’s with his leg injury not being there when he’s revived? 3) I would’ve given Sisu more internal conflict from a betrayal she goes through, and more fear of failure considering the faith her brothers and sisters had in her, and as the, quote, last dragon. 4) When Raya and Namaari fight their last fight and Namaari ends up defeated and on the ground, I would’ve gotten a way for them both to be disarmed, giving Raya the ability to kick Namaari in the stomach and land some punches, without anything fatal to stab her with. That sounds cruel but it’s realistic for Raya as a character, and hurting Namaari and making her suffer a little would make Raya realize her hatred both isn’t going to do any good and is part of the reason this is happening. Namaari’s speech about a character’s demise being both their faults just feels insipid without this. 5) Or maybe I just wouldn’t have had Namaari accidentally kill Sisu and just go from there. When all the water was gone, I knew the whole world was about to go to, ahem, excrement, and then be all terrific again. There was no way the film was going to end tragically and not bring the water back, so there was no way Sisu wasn’t going to be alright. Made it feel unnecessary for her to die. 6) I would’ve brought up the possibility that revival of those turned to stone maybe wouldn’t be possible, that maybe the older a statue is, the less soul that remains.
I feel these extra story ideas would’ve been included had they taken the chance to bring its premise further. Or maybe the second Last of Us game really made me into someone who takes more than is brought here to be convinced about the issues of wholeheartedly trusting those in a ravaged world. Guess I’ll see about next time, House of Mouse.