Compared to the average mediocrity of most of Disney’s other feature films lately, Raya and the Last Dragon is a big improvement. It’s got the stunning visuals, the genius recreation of a culture outside of modern America, and tells a story that is made to inspire children and the little kid in all of us. I’d even go as far as say that this is the most Christian movie that has been made for mainstream cinemas in a long time, as well as the most political! Church and state have always been as different as day and night, but this gorgeous film somehow found a way to merge the two together so that it can convey a story that would make both Jesus and the Senate smile ear to ear!
Don’t think it means this is a perfect movie, because even if it’s among the best Disney’s ever created, their issues still remain. Starting with the lazy dialogue, many of the words in the vocabulary used by these characters are not words they would have used way back then; then there’s the blue furry dragon voiced by Awkwafina. Believe me, it gets pretty hard to forget the person who’s voicing the character. It’s actually distracting how much of Awkwafina’s personality makes its way into the dragon—there’s even a moment when the dragon tries to rap, and fails at it in a way that’s not even funny. So I guess you could say that means the Awkwafina dragon is… awkward.
This world could also be seen as rather problematic, on account of you could immediately see the concept of the nations dividing and raging war as being pulled straight out of Avatar: The Last Airbender, along with some doses that look similar to water bending. Then there’s also some other elements that feel ripped out of The Lord of the Rings, such as these balls of glowing light that ward off evil, much like the light of Eärendil, or the evil creatures that won’t ever cross water, much like the Nazgul.
Then again, there’s the unique touches that make this a well-realized world after all. This is a land called Kumandra, which used to be green and lush with dragons and humans living harmoniously together, but now it’s a spooky and surreal dystopian world where dragons have been petrified, their magic was casted away, and these people are divided into separate nations, each named after a different body part of the dragon. Among the details of the world includes a little stream of water trickling up these stone steps rather than down them; the lore connected to the theme of water feels very rooted into real life Asian mythology, such as putting a lotus in the water to honor dead relatives. To complement the excitement matched with Asian inspiration, Raya’s father has an awesome sword with a genius mechanical design. So even those who prefer not to think too intellectually in their movies will still love this world for how gorgeous it looks, from the colors to the fully realized history of the architecture to the meaningful “O” shape that everyone makes with their hands as their symbol for the dragons. It gives the world a sense of religion that I never would have guessed Disney of all studios would be able to accomplish.
Then you see Raya become a guardian of the dragon gem, but she ultimately wants to be a warrior. Over the course of the film, she learns that being a guardian is not just about fighting off intruders, but trusting those who can help us. Her journey will empower girls and enable boys to show ladies more respect without either of them even worrying that they’re being fed an agenda. It doesn’t rely on anger or hate to empower one group of minorities, it does it with love and respect. Thus, the film has no concrete bad guy, it just wants to send a caring message for a crucial time.
Yet Disney still needs to steer away from their usual familiar tropes, starting with cute little animal companion who serves absolutely no plot purpose besides looking cute for the sake of merchandising. Then there’s the fact that this protagonist has exactly one parent, and the other is never even mentioned. Then there’s a prologue to the story where we see the main character as a child. The overheard voiceover narration even begins the feature with, “I know what you’re thinking.” There’s much more distracting familiarity than that, as those watching may be thinking, “Oh, it’s just like Mulan!” Seriously: this also features a female protagonist in an ancient Asian culture who looks at her reflection in her father’s sword and has to go on her journey with a rather annoying dragon voiced by a famous comedian. Therefore, this will not be among the most treasured of Disney classics like Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, or even Frozen.
But this still has one mode of maturity that marks this as greater in some ways than the other Disney classics—it reaffirms that our greatest national problems could all have been avoided had we just learned to trust each other and understand the heartaches. That’s where the dragon redeems herself past her occasional annoyance, as she ends up being the wisest and most compassionate character in the entire film, the one kids really should be looking up to as a role model. It proves that even today, if we stop seeing the other side as the enemy, and stop wanting to claim everything for ourselves, then that’s all it will take to create peace.
We all feel that the world is broken and divided right now, but guess what? That’s how it’s been ever since sin entered the world. Division and brokenness aren’t going anywhere until the world as we know it ends, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope! Disney’s newest work is evidence to us that we are capable of loving our neighbor, and that doing so will bring peace to our government and our economy. So I would love to see Raya and the Last Dragon somehow gain more attention despite its restricted presence in movie theaters. Even if you have to rent it on Disney+ or wait until it’s available to stream free, just see this movie somehow! I guarantee there’s something here that will change you for the better.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!