screenplay by Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim
directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
by Walter Chaw I've thought a lot lately about quitting, and seriously, this thing I've done over the last twenty-some years--this thing that started, ultimately, because I was a kid who couldn't speak the language and wanted desperately to belong to something that would never have me on my terms. I've thought about quitting, and it's a dangerous thing for someone like me to think that way. Movies were a thing I loved that never betrayed me, never abandoned me, whenever there was pain or confusion, or something I needed to work through; this was the art form that was primary for me as a catalyst for introspection. There's literature and music and poetry, of course, yet film could encompass all of those things. It's saved my life a time or two. I thought I had a place among others who loved it like me, but no one loves it like me--people love it like they love it. Or they just use it because they've failed at everything else and don't have the introspection to feel despair. When you give yourself over to an idea of affiliation through the appreciation of objects, you're doomed to disappointment and loneliness. When a person like me thinks about quitting, he's thinking about cutting the line that connects him to his life. I've been thinking about quitting, because what's the point of any of it when your rope is tied to a quintessence of dust? I don't trust this anymore.
Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall's Raya and the Last Dragon (hereafter Raya) is about trust. That's really all it's about. It's enough, too, given that trust is a large concept that's difficult to hold and fragile to boot. When it breaks, it almost never reconstitutes in anything like what it used to look like. The Japanese have this thing called kintsugi--a kind of pottery where you break it and then glue it back together again, the idea being that a thing healed is more beautiful, stronger, than a thing that's never been broken. I'm reminded of Frankenstein, of how in its original conception as a "modern Prometheus," it was constructed by Mary Shelley, whose mother was one of the great feminist theorists, as a book stitched together from the styles--and, in some instances, from the phrases and themes--of the male poets in Mary's orbit. Men can create poetry, but they can't create life, you see. And then before you know it, Frankenstein is a film released during a period when the world's first experiments in mechanized, disconnected warfare and concurrent advances in medicine resulted in colonies of disfigured men returning home, pieces missing, the rest held together by stitches and glue. In Raya, there's a gem broken by members of five competing tribes because they believe whoever possesses it will hold a tactical and moral advantage over the others. Shattering it, however, releases the Druun, monsters of the Id that are manifestations of human selfishness and short-sightedness, lacking any sense of causal interconnectedness. We hurt each other because we think that makes us strong. Not only does it not make us strong, it makes us weak.
The Druun are unconquerable, though quellable. They remind of the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal, another film that uses a shattered gem as a metaphor for a broken world. "Born from human discord, they've always been here, waiting for a moment of weakness," Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) says, and they've orphaned everyone in Raya. The dragons that used to keep them at bay, defined by rainbows and the pantheon of polytheistic faiths that allows each of them a particular area of magical influence, have in this world experienced an extinction-level event. They are the Mystics to the Skeksis. Light and shadow: light can't exist without casting a shadow; a shadow can only exist as an impression of light. Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) believes that mankind is due its own annihilation if we don't put aside our petty grievances and learn to trust one another. Raya, then, is at once a climate-change allegory and a discussion of our nation at this specific moment in time, wherein fear-driven death cults pose an existential threat to our republic--and every republic. Benja's daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), tries it out, this trust thing. She makes herself vulnerable and gets beaten up for it, repeatedly. I love the casting of Tran in this role, not just because she's fabulous in it, but also because she put her heart out there not so long ago and was destroyed for it. It took exactly no time for her to disappear from social media and no one is better for her absence except her. Why trust when social media is a lot of Druun and almost no dragon? Raya trusting "Fang" princess Namaari (Gemma Chan) is why this world falls into a dark age. And, in the end, it's why the world has a chance.
Raya is as complex a world-building exercise as Mad Max or "The Sandman"; it marries the post-apocalyptic tribal affiliation-through-function of the former and the chimeric, Huxley-an merging of mythologies, Eastern in this case, of the latter. I had a genuine thrill when I saw how Raya was travelling through the blasted landscape. As much as it owes a great debt to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, it is also its own thing. Raya's weapon is an amalgam of dozens of mystical weapons from folklore and video gaming; her kit is as intricate and functional as the bow the prince uses in Princess Mononoke. I liked, too, that the only white actor in the piece voiced the non-verbal burbling of a giant aardvark/roly-poly/hedgehog. Landing midway between stylized and hyperreal, the animation is gorgeous, the character design mesmerizing. You can recognize the actors in the characters' expressions, gestures, even body postures. While the Japanese remain the standard-bearers for animation, Raya is a shot across the bow. It's an evolutionary step forward in the Disney house-style, and if you look, there's Miyazaki in its kinetic fight sequences. Some Kawajiri as well. Visually, conceptually, the film is a stunner.
More importantly, it's about something. You could quibble with the linearity of it, the ease of its proximate, expository solutions, but remember how Narnia's grand battles were resolved in a sentence? Consider that Raya deals with both the difficulty and the paradoxical ease of restoring trust by the near-impossible--and simultaneously simple--act of giving it. There is an astonishing complexity to telling that story, enough so that entire cosmologies are given over to the unravelling of its puzzle. If we were brave enough to trust others with our heart, wouldn't we inspire some to become their better selves? Wouldn't we begin to heal many of the schisms that divide us? Wouldn't we be happy at last? Forgive me, but, if you're talking about the plot of anything, you're an idiot. A slow child follows plots. Though Raya has a fine plot, it has an exceptional problem on its mind and a central location called "Heart" where Raya is from, and where the last of the dragons made their final stand when they trusted the least of them to save the world--not that time, but this time, 500 years later in the "plot." Trust isn't that someone makes the right decision in the moment, or when it's easiest to do so. The giving of trust means you change how someone sees others. The ripple that spreads from that disturbance is enough to hit distant shores at a future time unknowable to you. Trust is an investment that yields a dividend you may not live to see. If you listen to the dialogue in Raya, it's all about affecting a worldview, so that this incredible pain you have in your heart from being betrayed by others who are twisted by fear and self-loathing can be alleviated if you make the decision to trust your weakness with them again, and as many times as it takes, until they aren't afraid anymore. Radical trust is faith, and it is the foundation of every religion and credo. And in your faith in others, the implicit communication to strangers that they are proper guardians of your vulnerability, they can maybe hate themselves less.
I'm not that strong, alas. Raya is about a climactic act of heroism that is completely unexpected and brutally effective. But only if you let it be. Raya's heroism is born of her allowing herself to be hurt again, and her example for others, former enemies/now allies, is enough for them to do the same. These are characters who have lost everything in their lives--and rather than try to save what's left for themselves, they open themselves up in faith that there is enough good left in the world to catch them when they put their hands to their chest and fall backwards off the proverbial ledge. Not me. I'm thinking a lot about quitting. Writing is reactive for me. When something moves me, I interrogate why that is through this process of examination. I put these notes into the world and I have trusted they won't be used against me. Of course they've been used against me. My race, my depression, my family. Yet I keep doing it. I think there's enough balance to mitigate the pain of being seen in this way. So far there isn't. I don't know if I continue. And if I do, I don't know if it'll be in the same fashion. Maybe that's growth, although it feels like giving up. You didn't come here for this, though. You came to hear whether the Disney movie is good. It is. Raya is a fable. It has so much faith in the hard thing being the right thing, and the pain in the moment being worth it in the end. It's a fairytale for children who are very brave in their belief that they will live to see the seed they plant blossom into something that bears edible, sustaining fruit. And I've grown old and sad and afraid. Because I know that I won't.