Well, after a string of incredible movies, Disney Animation have finally fallen into the Good Dinosaur trap: a movie that is visually stunning, but lacks heart and clear plot reasoning. That's not to say that Raya is a bad movie – I enjoyed myself well enough, and for kids I think it'll hit the mark – it's just a far cry from the likes of Moana, Frozen, and Zootopia. I think the lacklustre impact is mainly to do with a fairly unoriginal plotline, combined with some relatively shallow main characters (shallow as in lacking depth, not as in vapid). Let's start with plot.
First, Raya paints an interesting world with a beautiful central concept in the dragon lake and associated rivers. It never tries to explain how the water just flows into springs and disappears (well, unless you count dragon magic as a valid explanation), but for the most part it feels like a coherent geography. Our story takes place centuries after a great cataclysm which resulted in the petrification of the dragon race and the fracturing of the human population into five distinct tribal regions, each named after the part of the dragon lake that they reside near (Heart, Fist, Spine etc.). The tribes aren't exactly at war with one another, but they're also not really friends either, and there's particular animosity around a magical gem that contains the remnants of dragon magic, which the Heart tribe (from which our titular Raya harks) has guarded since their founding.
As far as fantasy backstories go, it was unique enough to capture my interest, though there are some fairly obvious parallels with existing franchises and real-world mythologies. Those parallels become even stronger when the real plot gets going: the Heart tribe invite the other leaders to a feast in order to discuss reunification, only to be betrayed, a course of action that results in the dragon gem being broken (neatly into five chunks because ✨symbolism✨) and the old cataclysm – a race of watered-down dementors that turn people to stone – being released on the world once more. Cue Raya's whole tribe being petrified except her, thanks to her dad realising that the dementors don't like water and throwing her into a raging river as a child, and then we time jump into the future where humanity is just about clinging on in defensible positions by using the pieces of the gem to ward away the evil dementor things (I cannot remember their name and it's pretty inconsequential).
Again, this is a non-horrible set-up for a questline, as Raya sets out to A) determine whether any dragons still remain alive (due to rumours) and B) reunite the dragon stone. Unfortunately, it's here that the film starts to creak a little. We pick up with Raya checking the final reverse-spring and actually discovering the last dragon, whilst being pursued by our antagonist: the daughter of the tribe that caused the whole broken gem backstabbing fiasco in the first place, after having tricked Raya into thinking they were friends and showing her the secret passageway. Why is Namaari tracking Raya? Because Raya stole a map that Namaari showed her just before the whole backstabbing thing happened, in a wonderful bit of plot foreshadowing that makes zero sense in hindsight. Nor does it make much sense that Raya would need that map, which is lacking in any meaningful detail and only really shows where the rivers run in the first place, something which would be pretty easy to work out by just, y'know, following the rivers. But I guess it gives Namaari a reason to continue to be angsty, misunderstood, and in pursuit.
Still, Raya gets there first, discovers the last dragon which has just been asleep and waiting for someone to pray to it since the last war, and they learn that the dragon can absorb the magic from the gemstone (Raya has the Heart tribes peace, which is why she is able to survive in the wild). This kicks off quest B, where Raya goes from tribe to tribe stealing their only protection from the onslaught of the creeping evil that turns people to stone... our hero, everyone! 🎉 (Okay, yes, water is also a protective tool, as is sunlight to some extent, but it does leave them much more vulnerable than they needed to be).
She also refuses to tell anyone why she needs the stones, or that she found a dragon, because she doesn't trust people at all. Even the ones who end up partnering with her on the way. Which happens a fair amount, roughly once per tribe, as she encounters and befriends those on the fringe of their respective societies, all of whom have tragic backstories.
So the story evolves into an increasingly diverse cast of travelling companions bouncing around a fractured society, performing small side-quests of kindness, and working towards getting all the various powers together in one place to finally bring peace and unification to all, whilst being chased by the angsty offspring of the tribe who caused the whole issue in the first place. And if that sounds eerily familiar, it's because, yep, this is just a condensed, simplified version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Raya is the last of her tribe, burdened with a personal quest to right the wrongs she inadvertently helped cause, guided by a magical, spiritual force that can fill her in on all the forgotten histories of her enemies, and through her friendships ensures that when she emerges victorious, every tribe will have played their part. Zuko – I mean Namaari – trails along behind, ultimately playing the role of hero and thereby resolving her kin of their collective sins, whilst finally finding internal peace. Everyone else is mainly around for comedic interjections. Aaaand, Avatar. Hell, at the end Raya is even stripped of her magical guidance through her own mixture of hubris and anxiety, forcing her to step up and save the world on her own terms, just like Aang goes through a crisis with the Avatar force and later Korra will be severed from the Avatar's that came before her.
We even get a world of weird animal mashup hybrids and a large, incredibly useful familiar that serves as all-in-one mode of transport... which is only partially forgive because oh my word, butterfly shrews 😍😍
But so what? Avatar: TLA is a classic and beloved story, and Raya does mix things up a little. Are the similarities really all that problematic? Well, not on the surface, but the problem is that Avatar had four seasons to tell a nuanced, emotional story, whereas Raya has two hours, and it just isn't enough. In order to make it all work, they instead just make the quest's ridiculously easy. Sure, we cut out the whole dragon hunt with a time skip, but even still, she literally waltzes into each tribal HQ and emerges with their gem fragment with barely any problems, because there just isn't time for any of that. This has the unfortunate result of making you wonder just why no one else has done this. After all, with more than one gem a tribe would be able to expand and offer outposts greater protection, yet none seem to have made this leap. Mostly, that's because two of the tribes are actually dead already, whilst the other two have created island nations surrounded by water and never leave, but at the same time it does paint a slightly more forgiving picture than the one Raya sees, which makes her just look bitter and jaded.
In fact, because acquiring the gems is so simple, the story instead leans on Raya to constantly self-sabotage in order to provide drama. This is done in an attempt to drive home the central (and belaboured) message that trust is good, y'all! but it mainly achieves making Raya fairly unlikeable. It also leaves no room for any other character development: Raya matures and learns to trust, Namaari becomes less selfish, and everyone else is here to make jokes and look sad occasionally! That, unfortunately, includes our dragon, who is utterly naive, infuriatingly dumb, and just, well, irritating. I thought Awkwafina did a solid job with the script she was given, but I never really cared about her character at all. And the rest of the companions range from annoyingly twee (the monkeys I liked; the baby just felt forced) or utterly one-dimensional.
You do, at least, grow to care about saving their world, so the final big showdown against the dementors is emotional and does have some great moments. It's also visually spectacular, something the whole film does really well (it's stunning, start to finish), and well-choreographed, as are most of the fight sequences. But that's the Marvel trick: boring main plot, introduce a bunch of characters with obvious flaws, give them narrative reason to remove those flaws, big fight against the villain, and scene. It works (most of the time) in the MCU because the wider universe fills in extra details, or previous movies have built up character depth, but Raya has none of those fallbacks, so it just comes across as by-the-numbers and surface level.
I've also seen some criticism about the way Raya addresses Asian culture and whether or not its message of unification isn't a bit too white-washed for a region with such a huge amount of historical, cultural, and ethnographic diversity, but I'm really qualified to speak on that. What I will say is that the film may be set in Asian-inspired cultures and have a largely Asian cast (with the notable exception of Alan Tudyk, yet again making weird, adorable noises as the animal companion 😂), but it never feels like it's trying to be set in our world, let alone the Asian continent.
Despite all of that, I did enjoy Raya. It's a fun fantasy, with some decent humour throughout, and utterly stunning visuals that I genuinely regret having missed on the big screen, where I think this film would just shine. Unfortunately, the plot, characters, and even central message never really get much in the way of depth or development. The result is a fun ride, but nothing worth returning to.