PG for violence. I think that there's a category of Disney movie that is really centered around normalizing violence. I suppose that some people might call this an "action movie". But if I had to be completely objective, there seems to be a lot of pretty intense fighting. Rather than being a low stakes film like Luca, Raya is one of the movies that spells the end of humanity. While people aren't technically killed by the villains, the film kind of gets it both ways by having them dead-without-being-dead. The monsters also are kind of scary, despite being amorphous. PG.
DIRECTORS: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, and Paul Briggs
There's no way I'm paying for Disney Premiere...until Black Widow shows up. But there was something early on about Raya and the Last Dragon that screamed, "You'll watch it because it's Disney, and that's about it." I don't know why the action Disney movies don't do anything for me. It's the smaller tales that really get me. When the movies get big and bombastic and there's an actual threat, I don't know what it is that shuts me down. It's not like I don't like these movies. I do. I mean, I still think Frozen is rad and that has huge stakes. But when my family wants to do family movie night and the movie is just plain-ol'-streaming on Disney+, then I'll go in with enthusiasm.
Everything about me knows that this is not a bad movie. It's actually super quality. It got me laughing a couple of time. The story is probably the movie that we need right now. And a lot of it might come from the fact that I had just watched Luca, a Disney movie that completely wrecked me. But all I could see were the faults of the movie, which were fairly nitpicky. This entire blog might easily turn into a reflection of how the audience brings their baggage into a movie and it's not the movie's fault. But my tastes were definitely coming front and center of this movie. The first moment where I realized I was being very critical of the film was with the very long opening. There's an unfortunate amount of mythology and backstory to make this movie that make it almost inaccessible. Like, when a movie begins and there's just this long period of narration explaining the world, isn't that a little off-putting? David Lynch's Dune had the same problem.
(Note: I really tried finishing this on Friday, but that day was stressful as all get-out because we left for a weekend vacation. If there is a drastically different tone to the rest of it and that I've forgotten things...I'm just saying that I'm going to forgive myself.) So what is it about the action Disney's that don't exactly get me excited? I suppose it is the same thing with having an action movie as a favorite film in general. It's almost afraid of vulnerability. But Disney films, by and large, have a message that is front and center. They want kids to leave better people than they came in. (Okay, the storytellers want that to happen. The higher ups at Disney just want all of the money in the world.)
And the film does have an absolutely fantastic message. That's what makes me split. A film shouldn't go so heavy into its themes that it feels like we're being preached to. But I think that Raya goes too hard in the other direction. It has a moral that needs to be told, but it hides behind too much adventure to the point where the visual and the experience is more important than the underlying themes. Because I'm dancing around them way too much (speaking of which, would it kill Raya to be a musical?), the themes of the movie are ones that are pertinent today: we need to find a way to unite, despite the fact that differences seem insurmountable. While I wish Sisu had a more overt allegorical meaning, the concept of a nation divided seems pretty on point. And because I find myself to be the hero in my own story, Raya has to be progressive America. (Everything is about me, guys.)
Heart is America under Obama. I'm not an Obama sycophant, but a lot of things were working. There was hope that we could be one country. After years of partisan politics, a lot of good things happened. (I refuse to establish the Obama Administration as the utopian world because, like all administrations, it had major problems that shook me.) But it was mostly working. We thought that we were building to a post-racist society and taking active steps in the right direction. But, like the meeting of the five nations at Heart, revealed how progressive America was just lying to itself. There was back-biting and greed festering the entire time. People were concerned with their own self-interests and we discovered that it was easy to offer a hand of peace and unity when things are working for you.
Enter Raya. Raya is experiencing what I'm experiencing right now. (Remember, I'm always morally right and I never make any mistakes. In general, while reading this blog, you can simply take this as a given.) Raya knows the objective good: the unification of both the stone and of the nations. Her father believed in this unification of nations, so Raya works towards that greater good. But she's twice bitten at this point. She sees the evil of men and, like me, has given up on the notion that people would do the right thing given the opportunity. Trust me: "Same, girl. Same." So she wants to control what she can. While she can't reunite the nations, she can take control of her own little world and return it to the status quo. She can bring back the literally petrified people and at least get back to a sense of normality. But she absolutely believes that the world can't get better.
Heck, despite the fact that Raya's fatal flaw is the belief that things can go back to the way they were, but not better, she comes across as an optimist compared to where I am. I know that we have a new President. But the more I drive across America and the more I look on the Internet, I'm in this place where the country just seems unfixable. So I get Raya's predicament. She keeps running into people who say the right thing and then keep doing the wrong thing. Golly, there are people who keep also saying the wrong thing and she still has to trust them. That's why I get the Namaari distrust. Namaari is one of the principle problems with the world. She caused all this. She is Q. She is someone who spread messages that 5G towers spread coronavirus. She's a talking head on Fox News who just makes stuff up. Having Raya have to extend an olive branch to her seems not only miguided, but it seems suicidal. It's a real bummer.
But that's the only chance for healing. And as much as I saw this in the story, it really does get buried. I'm pretty sure that these are the same guys who made Zootopia, but Zootopia wore its message on its sleeve. Because there was so much worldbuilding happening with Raya, this message only seemed to resonate with people who really wanted to find it. By the end of Zootopia, you knew that this was a story about injustice. With Raya, it all seems like it could be too universal to apply to something pertinent. Listen, a storyteller who presents universal themes is doing his job. Good on you, movie. That's the way to go. But when we're in this crisis moment in time, I need something more in the now. Make it about now. You can appreciate the visuals later. I actually wouldn't mind a sledgehammer right now.
My last complaint, despite the fact that I still stand by the fact of the movie being fine, is the sheer amount of comic relief characters. Raya has to play straight woman to a lot of over the top characters. Sisu herself is Genie. She's wise-cracking, yet instrumental to the story. But then I started to find Boun to be this fantastic comic relief beyond that. Like Iago, (only, you know, a good guy), Boun was less central to the story and provided some levity. Okay. But then you introduced the con baby. The con baby, while offering a giggle from time to time, seemed like it was pandering. Then coupling the con baby with monkeys? Really. There's already so much. Then we get the inept warrior? There's so much attempt to make this movie appealing and a laugh-a-minute that there's no actual cohesion.
It's fine. At the end of the day, it's fine. It's a Disney action movie that buries what could be something great away from vulnerability. Maybe because a lot of this movie had to be made in isolation, it comes across a little stilted. But it's a fine movie that really pales in the light of Luca.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.