As the field of animation matured in the mainstream of popular culture and successfully untethered itself from being immediately associated with entertainment for children, many Hollywood animated features have developed a successful methodology of including pop-cultural refences as little off-hand remarks, Easter eggs and winks at the audience as a way to entertain the adult in the room. Now, I have never been fully on board with this because I do believe that children should have their entertainment untainted with overabundance of ‘adult stuff’, however funny it might be for the adults watching it or critics reviewing it. However, certain studios (like Pixar) have successfully evolved this ideology into entertainment for general audiences as they hide their Easter eggs well enough that they don’t distract from the story at hand and the subject matter equally appeals a bit more to a wider range of ages.
The so-called ‘proper’ Disney productions have never truly embraced such changes and remained more or less faithful to the idea of marketing their products towards children and relying on the tried-and-true formula of meshing archetypal storytelling manifolds with elements of musical theatre. Interestingly, Raya and the Last Dragon breaks at least with one of these traditions. While it is still firmly aimed at younger girls with its continued reliance on strong heroine characters and injecting emancipated ideas into well-established narrative formulae, this film is not a musical, which actually makes the experience of watching it a little bit jarring.
It seems as though the filmmakers weren’t entirely at home with the idea of a narrative not punctuated with catchy tunes because the film as a whole is paced rather strangely, as though people behind it were originally intending for the characters to break into a song but forgot to commission the music, or they composed the film in this way as a result of sheer inertia baked into the notion of making musicals for children for multiple decades now. This in the long run might not have been the best decision on their behalf. On top of the fact the film is not screened in cinemas in many markets at all owing to COVID restrictions, the fact Raya and the Last Dragon is not a musical might severely hinder the film’s chances to enter the cultural mainstream in the way Moana and Frozen did. While the film’s release will most definitely be accompanied by an onslaught of merchandise and other physical marketing, it will be impossible for the film to persist subconsciously in young girls’ minds for very long because they won’t have songs to sing in the car on their way to school.
However, this film is still not aimed at general audiences, let alone fully functioning adults. This isn’t Inside Out or Soul. Although Raya does carry a very distinct politically-relevant connotation critiquing the society for devolving into tribal echo chambers and maybe subtly comments on the post-Trump/Brexit atmosphere that has since arisen in the political discourse, it is still by all accounts a film for children. It is a simple, pared-down narrative about a young girl who must fix the world and enlists the help of a shapeshifting dragon who wields all kinds of magic to help her achieve that goal. So, it might not be entirely appropriate to judge Raya against the larger body of cinema because the film’s intended target audience will have no knowledge of it at all. In fact, little girls who are most likely to resonate with this film on a visceral level are probably going to compare it directly to other recent Disney productions.
Granted, this film doesn’t really hold the candle to Moana, Frozen and Frozen II, but it is successful enough in engaging the young viewer with its familiar and easy-to-follow narrative structure, action-packed story and fun-enough characters to be seen as an out-and-out success. In fact, I watched this with my own seven-year-old daughter who absolutely adored it. Though she mostly enjoyed the action scenes and anything that had to do with magic, the film got to her on more than one level. She clearly noticed the values and messaging the film was trying to convey whilst having a lot of fun watching it, so who am I to criticize this film at all? It clearly works and I can assure you that Raya and the Last Dragon will most likely enter the curriculum of what she watches.
After all, it doesn’t really take much to entertain young minds. They do have their specific requirements but they don’t mind seeing the same messages and themes repackaged under different guises because they gravitate to completely different aspects of the experience than adults do. A seven-year-old doesn’t care the same hero’s journey has been done a million times before. They probably don’t even mind if the film doesn’t have songs, but I will be taking a close look at how long Raya remains in the mainstream of my daughter’s interests. If the film is colourful, compelling and exciting – which this one clearly is – it is more than enough to earn her ringing endorsement.