A few years ago I got tired of being spoiled by trailers that gave the entire plot away or revealed the best jokes during their two and a half minute runtimes. So I decided to only watch the first teaser trailer that comes out for any film. As someone who goes to the theatre a lot (pre-pandemic, of course) and who writes for an entertainment site, this has been inconvenient to say the least! But it has made my enjoyment of movies go up considerably.

But I may have just discovered a major downside.

Based only on the original teaser, I went into Disney’s latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, expecting a Mulan-style fun-but-serious action adventure film set in a foreign land with a diverse cast. Those of you who watched the rest of the trailers were much better prepared for the actuality of what we got. I, however, was stunned. Imagine going into a theatre to watch what you assume with be the next The Lord of the Rings, but getting the next A Troll in Central Park instead.

I really don’t know if I can articulate just how bad this film was measured against my expectations. I usually don’t like to spoil much about a movie, but to make my point, let me just share some of the actual dialogue in this film — remembering that I assumed we were getting something a lot more dramatic and profound than this.

— “That was awesome! Gimme some shell!”
— Two characters talking about how much they like dragons:
      “I’m a bit of a dragon nerd.”
      “Well I’m the one wearing the fan necklace!”
— “Here’s the sitch…”
— Describing how good a swimmer the character is:
      “Imma wicked when I hit that liquid!”
— “Bling is my thing.”
— “This beetle has a booty!”
— “Super flow plan, amirite?

Before you think, “well those were probably all from side characters”, let me disabuse you of that notion. Four of those lines were spoken by Raya herself.

While watching the film and taking notes, I came up with two perfect encapsulations of what I was seeing and how I might be able to describe it later. The first is simply, “Raya and the Last Dragon is Mulan — if every character were Mushu.” The recent live-action Mulan ruined what made a lot of the original so good by losing the fun. But that classic film would have been just as marred by replacing all the gravitas in the story with quipping.

The second comes from the eighth season of The Simpsons. There is an animated show within the show that the Simpson children watch called The Itchy & Scratchy Show. Think Tom and Jerry with the violence ratcheted up 500%. When the producers of the show want to make the cartoon appeal to what they believe modern audiences want, they add a new hip dog character named Poochie to the cat and mouse team. Here’s the conversation the executives have:

“We at the network want a dog with attitude. He’s edgy, he’s ‘in your face’. You’ve heard the expression, ‘let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay’! Consistently and thoroughly.”

“So he’s proactive, huh?”

“Oh, God, yes. We’re talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.”

The wise-cracking supposedly trendy dog does not fit at all into what the audience of the show has come to know, love, and expect and Poochie is hated by all.

I can completely imagine higher-ups at Disney having a similar conversation as The Itchy & Scratchy producers! “Today’s girls want a princess with attitude. She’s hip, she’s in your face. We’re talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.” Perhaps some evidence of this idea can be seen after the film, where a possibly unprecedented four directors are credited, as well as eight writers! That’s literally the definition of film by committee.

Another issue I had with the story was with the setting. As an Air Force brat back in the day, I made a lot of school friends from Southeast Asia at one of my father’s postings. I was looking forward to seeing the cultural influences I remembered from growing up with them in the first Disney animated film set in that region. But unlike Mulan which really felt like it took place in China or Coco which had a definite Mexican influence, Raya and the Last Dragon felt much more generic in its environs and inspirations. To be fair, I suspect the dialogue issues I had may have taken me out of movie too much to appreciate the impact of the setting they were going for.

Compared to the above, a relatively minor nitpick I noticed with the plot was the characters had a little too easy of a time getting through it. I’ve spoiled enough already, but when watching the film note the stops the hero makes on her way to the end and consider what she had to do at each to accomplish her goal. If you boil them down to their essence, she really didn’t do much at all at each step, making the journey feel a bit anticlimactic.

Despite all those issues, this though was probably the worst. There was actually a really good story hidden underneath all this. The underlying mythology created for the film about dragons and the evil spirits and the magic orb and the five tribes could have been epic. Should have been epic! This was a story that could have supported being one Disney’s best animated films ever. But they took this phenomenal idea and put the worst characters and dialogue on top of it. Which is almost unforgivable based on what could have been. As if that weren’t bad enough, even the movie’s over-aching message was admirable, but was all but lost amongst the wisecracking until near the end.

Let’s turn to something done extremely well in this film: the animation. Disney went all out in this respect and it shows up on the screen. The character designs are so well done. The first time we meet Raya’s father I had to pause the film to ensure the animators weren’t cheating with some kind of live-action hybrid! And the locales and backgrounds were beautiful, even if I wish they had gone a little further with the Southeast Asian designs. I wasn’t enamored by the look of the dragons. But the design of the Druun spirits were very well done and so unique and appropriately eerie.

The voice acting in the film was… okay. Don’t get me wrong. All the actors did perfectly fine jobs — with what they were given. And I’m actually a fan of most of these actors outside this film. But that dialogue! I don’t feel like it’s fair to blame the actors for their performances when it’s the words they were saying I take issue with.

Raya and the Last Dragon had so much potential. An unplumbed setting for an animated film, a deep and interesting foundational legend to build off of, a good message, amazing animation, a great cast of actors, and all the resources Disney can provide. All of it squandered because somewhere along the way, someone suggested they give audiences a princess who gets “biz-zay” rather than a hero on the regular. (Yes those last three words are another quote from Raya herself.)

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Raya and the Last Dragon
March 5, 2021
107 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada