“Raya and the Last Dragon” falls flat with character development

Disney animation studios “Raya and the Last Dragon,” recently released on Disney Plus for a fee, is Disney’s latest attempt to continue its run of successful animated films. 2020 was a great year for Disney animated films, as Pixar released two films on Disney Plus that were nominated for Best Animated Picture. “Raya and the Last Dragon” tries to continue that trend, albeit with a different studio. 

“Raya and the Last Dragon,” co-directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, follows Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she tries to save the world from Druun, evil creatures who turn people to stone. To do so, she must obtain all five pieces of a dragon orb and put them together with the help of the dragon Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina). 

Let’s start with the positives. The film is beautifully animated, as Disney’s animation seems to be getting better year after year. The score by James Newton Howard is also great and really captures the emotions the film is trying to portray. 

But when it comes to major positives in the film, that is about it. All of the problems that the rest of the film has can be traced back to poor pacing and a lack of understanding of the time needed to tell a story of this size.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” has a story more akin to “Lord of the Rings” than “Frozen.” That’s not necessarily the problem, as Disney has had success recently with action epics (see: “Avengers: Endgame”). 

The problem is that “Raya and the Last Dragon” has the runtime of “Frozen.” The relatively short runtime doesn’t give this story enough time to fully develop. The film speeds through the beginning at a lightning quick rate, not giving much time for development of any of the characters or any of the tribes as a whole. When the catalyst event takes place, it falls flat because you don’t understand the characters except for Raya. The pace continues to be lighting quick as the film progresses, and the characters we meet along the way suffer from lack of real development. 

As the film reaches the climax, you can’t help but feel disappointed because you don’t know or understand very many of the characters besides Raya. The only character that Raya has a real relationship with in the film is her giant pet hedgehog. There are not very many films that I would recommend adding an hour to the runtime, but this film needs it to give its story the care it deserves. 

All in all, I admire the film’s ambition, as it was trying to tell an epic story. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired. If you have Disney Plus, I would recommend watching “Moana” again instead of spending $30 on “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

One thought on ““Raya and the Last Dragon” falls flat with character development

  • January 20, 2022 at 12:14 pm
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    I agree with this summary. When I watched Raya and the last dragon, my immediate reaction was serious disappointment. As my friends were discussing it, I said that the problem was the lack of character development, but none of them really seemed to understand what I meant.
    I think one of the major problems, not discussed in this articles, was the way the film portrayed trust in relationships.

    SPOILER ALTER:
    Having had her trust broken at a very young age, with the resulting calamities leading to her father’s death, Raya is understandably warry and unwilling to trust. This seems to be a good angle for character development. However, because the writers and directors chose to focus so heavily on Raya’s relationship with Namaari, the one who betrayed her long ago, they fail to show the actual process and time that trust takes. Raya learning to trust her newly gathered team (Baun, Noi and her ongis, Tong, and Sisu) is a struggle that’s hardly given any screen time. Had Disney chosen to focus on Raya having to learn that not everyone will betray her and that some people are worthy of trust, the story may not have fallen so flat. Additionally, this might have been easier if the supporting characters were more flushed out, as mentioned in the article.
    However, Disney instead focused on Raya needing to learn to trust Namaari again, in spite of her betrayal. But, the problem is that Namaari never proves herself trustworthy. For nearly the entire film, she is fighting fiercely against Raya and her team. However, Sisu continues to claim they should trust her, which eventually leads to the dragon’s apparent death. Giving second chances is one thing, but blind “trust” in the unworthy is another. Perhaps if Namaari had wrestled with whether or not Raya might be right and with guilt over having betrayed Raya more, and come to the conclusion that she had been wrong and that she must help Raya, the story would have gone better. Had she come to the group and sought to prove herself trustworthy, then Raya’s struggle to learn to trust her would have been more realistic, and Namaari would have been more sympathetic, whereas as the story now stands, it seems Raya has no reason whatsoever to try to trust Namaari. Therefore, the entire trust conflict feels ridiculous, unrealistic, and unwise.

    Additionally, the end of the film fell flat as well, as little of the magic was explained and the resurrection of the people and dragons was far too convenient. Sisu’s own resurrection is never explained, and seems strange considering she died due to an arrow wound and was not turned to stone. Also, thought it may seem like a small thing, all of the dragons at the end of the movie appeared to be using the ability to create and jump from the floating water platforms, whereas Sisu’s original words made it seem as though abilities between dragons differed and only a sixth of the dragon population would have had this ability.

    I was very disappointed by Raya and the Last Dragon, not the least of which was because it had so much potential. The animation was incredible, the wordbuilding fantastic, and the idea of the plot was quite good. My wish would be that Disney would go back and recreate Raya and the Last Dragon as a better film with more character development and a better display of the true conflicts of trust, as well as more clarity about what in the world is happening with the resurrection and the dragons’ powers. But perhaps this wish is more of an idle fantasy, as Disney is not prone to correcting the mistakes in their films. Still, I wish and think it would be indeed a worthwhile endeavor.

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