If there’s one thing that has always remained true for Disney and Pixar films it’s that the worlds they build are perhaps just as vital as the characters they create. World building is perhaps the true source of where that “Disney magic” comes from. There are many ways to trick the audience into believing the fantasy world you’ve created is real; one example is creating boundaries and ceilings around what characters can and cannot do within a world – this helps the audience see that this fantasy world has limitations and laws just like our own and thus, makes the world feel more immersive by reflecting some our own world into it. But with more rules there comes more to consider, the writer now has to tiptoe around said rules to ensure none are broken and their narrative remains consistent. This is perhaps why films rarely succeed within the fantasy genre or are even made to begin with; the rules are so imperative to the stability of the narrative that many storytellers shy away from its complexity.
Now, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that almost 1 year ago to the day Disney and Pixar released Onward (2020) – a fantasy film that, on-paper, looked as though it could’ve stood a great chance at successfully building the layered and textually rich fantasy world I’m referring to. But with all the magic that Onward flaunted throughout its narrative, it was perhaps a case-study example of a film ignoring the fantasy rules and laws. If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that Raya and the Last Dragon contains a rich and diverse world that manages to do what Onward could not. It follows its own rules and laws and has a clear idea of its world’s identity.
In this film we follow the story of a young girl named Raya, as she embarks on a quest with the last dragon – exploring the world in search of magical fragments in order to restore peace. Now, note I said “exploring the world” – well that’s because this film’s greatest strengths lie in just that, its world. Throughout this film we follow Raya travelling through various regions, biomes, and cultures as she tries desperately to unite a world that is divided.
The characters within Raya and the Last Dragon unfortunately puff smoke more than they breathe fire. Thankfully Raya herself, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, is superb and perhaps the most naturalistic, concise, and emotionally versatile voice acting I’ve heard since Zootopia (2016). Tran manages to evoke that classical Disney voice style that one would’ve expected to hear in their earlier renaissance films – it’s oddly nostalgic. However, it is clear that we are tied down by the supporting roles; particularly by Aquafina, who plays the role of the Last Dragon named Sisu, a goofy and aloof mystical dragon. While Aquafina is a talented actress and it was unexpectedly fun to introduce the character of Sisu as the antithesis of what you’d expect, the overall voice acting role here by Aquafina simply shatters the immersion that Kelly Marie Tran is building, as Aquafina’s voice holds no differentiation from her classically loud comedic roles. It simply doesn’t bind as well as it could’ve.
On the subject of character, this is perhaps where Raya and the Last Dragon lets itself down; as there is clearly a very candid attempt here by writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim to construct a beautifully rich world. They are ultimately let down by the blatant Disney-ifications that are injected throughout, such as awkward cute characters that are forced on-screen, in this case, a baby that follows our cast of characters around and shatters the tone being built. Such forceful injections of cute characters will perhaps be the bane of many future films that try to build immersive worlds.
I am honestly running out of ways to truly describe the industry-led animation that is major Disney and Pixar films as the detail on each frame is rendered to the highest degree. It is clear that the studio truly puts in a lot of passion and care towards character designs and world building. Raya and the Last Dragon has a strong attention to detail which only improves the impressive shots the visual camera captures. Alongside this, the lighting is smartly used in a way to complement the emotion of the scene taking place. The film has reached the heights of Frozen II and Toy Story 4 in terms of pure animation quality. The world-building allows for some stimulating set-pieces that actually provide context from the comments made by the directors that some parts of the original cut would have given the film an R rating.
While criticisms can be made regarding the rushed exploration of a fairly lucrative world that has been established; it does get points for building an expansive world quite unlike what we have seen in recent Disney animated films. Each of the five kingdoms that are quickly set-up have a unique culture and climate specific to their location – these help create some challenging situations for the characters and thus, elevating the adventure tone of the film.
James Newton Howard doesn’t stray too far from the Disney formula when it comes to his musical score with the utilisation of an orchestra helps capture the magical enchantment feel of Raya and the Last Dragon. James Newton Howard had the opportunity to fully embrace the asian cultural feel that this film was attempting to establish but ultimately he came up short. There are a few hints of asian-inspired musical pieces which are noticeable through the use of flutes and chimes which emphasises the cultural environments of the different locations throughout this world.
Raya and the Last Dragon dazzles with its mystical world-building and luscious environments – but ultimately falters in bringing its characters together to match the majesty of its scenery. It’s like a dragon without its wings and fire breathing ferocity – still beautiful, but lacking that raw energy that makes it a dragon.