Raya and the Last Dragon: What’s Going on, Disney?

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I remember the days when Disney were creating masterpieces. Intelligent, inspiring reflections of our society.

Inside Out told a story of mental illness through a creative, visual representation still used by child psychologists and therapists. WALL-E warned us of climate calamity if we continued our environmentally harmful ways. Zootopia told a story of overcoming bias through an anthropomorphic society of animals.

I was always excited to watch these films because I knew I would come out of the cinema with a different outlook on life. I would be inspired.

Now, I sit down to watch the latest release with the worry of being underwhelmed.

On March 6, Disney released Raya and the Last Dragon, a film about a girl who finds a big, blue dragon and heroically saves the world. Simple storyline, lovable character designs, and possessing all the right chemistry to create a successful animated film.

Thing is, it’s generic and has no unique voice. The current worldwide gross? $82,000,000.

Courtesy of YouTube

When I watched this film, I thought it could have been the day that I’ve been waiting for: to watch a Disney animation and feel something. When I watched Bolt, I felt something. When I watched Moana, I felt something. But when I watch any of the recent films that Disney produces, I feel nothing.

My parents say, “Hon, that’s just because you’re getting older!” But my parents also think animation is exclusively for children. And how wrong they are. (Besides, I remember my mum sobbing within the first ten minutes of watching Up so clearly you can still be moved by films for children at the age of 59.)

I love nothing more than being able to cry at an animation. It means, whoever has worked on it, they’ve succeeded.

I didn’t cry at Raya, as much as I was desperate to. It had the potential to speak to its older audience and address the real-life issues it chose to work with, war and distrust, in a deeper way than what it did but the execution just didn’t work. And no, it’s nothing to do with age because, two weeks ago, I was sobbing my heart out at The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I’m nearly twenty!

So, what does this say about Raya?

It says that Disney has lost its creativity in the thirst for commerciality. It’s always been about the money but this is getting more explicit because these films are not masterpieces anymore. They seem to be masterplans of consumerism.

Our nation doesn’t judge an animation based on its creative success but instead on how it has bought its way into our culture. We were given toys of cartoon characters when we were kids, we ate from dinner plates with their faces on, we read book adaptations of the films before bed. When you grow up and watch these again, you quickly realize most of them are creatively subpar but the nostalgia brings you back to it with fond memories every time. Then you’ll buy those same films and toys for your children and the cycle continues.

The business campaigns we see from top animation companies are not just for selling their latest piece of work, they’re for engraining a positive impression of that film into children for the rest of their lives, which they will then pass onto their own children. It is an unbreakable cycle of societal learning. Ultimately, we can suggest here that even if a film is terrible, the correct marketing will always tell you otherwise. Mediocre films by production giants have this system entirely in their favor while works like Mary and Max by Adam Elliot (a favorite animated film of mine that only grossed around $2,000,000) get nothing.

Raya and the Last Dragon is not a bad film. It has the Disney magic we all know and love, and the soundtrack was beautiful. Overall, I was very entertained. But was it what I was hoping for? Not at all.

There were so many things it could have done to step out of its comfort zone, so many cliches it could have moved away from, but it played it too safe. It fell into the heartbreaking trap that stories from POC, women, and minorities are often forced into: playing it safe to be accepted by the mainstream. (I mean, we all know how much Disney is scared of outright saying a character in a cartoon is gay and, really, this was no different. Queer-bait much?)

It feels as if the companies decided sometime in 2017 that the thoughtful inclusion of topical themes and current affairs is somehow no longer integral because their films sell just as well without them. That statement doesn’t seem untrue because for Raya to have accumulated so much money in such a short time confirms this idea, and it’s scary. The fact this extortionate sum of $82,000,000 doesn’t even count the extra cash pulled in from merchandise is scarier. It’s selling. Really selling. Everywhere you look, Sisu the dragon smiles at you from pencil cases, t-shirts, plush toys, and action figures, beckoning you for your money.

Yes, it has always been a debate if Disney is failing or succeeding with their animations but the one element that we know will never fail is their marketing tactics. They know how to create films we will cherish and love forever, even if they lack in the important creative areas.

The question is, are we ever returning to Disney’s ability to create something groundbreakingly incredible or are we slowly getting further away from that dream? I think this fate now lies in the hands of independent production companies and opening up this creative space to minority writers and creators, without this capitalism-fueled pressure to fit, safely, into the mainstream. Disney needs to step up to its competition.

Better storytelling is worth more than money.

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