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Titanium Dragon

TD writes and reviews pony fanfiction, and has a serious RariJack addiction. Send help and/or ponies.

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Raya and the Last Dragon · 11:35pm Mar 24th, 2021

Raya and the Last Dragon - or Raya and her Trust Issues - is a decent but unexceptional CG animated movie from Disney. The movie features vibrant and striking visuals, but a cast of essentially two characters plus a bunch of character shaped props.

It is a movie whose moral is that it is only by extending trust can we expect trust in return wherein the ENTIRE PLOT is driven by people backstabbing those who were foolish enough to trust them.

No fewer than two characters on two separate occasions are shot and killed by people with crossbows after extending their trust to the wrong people.

And this is, ultimately, a major problem with the movie - it not only actively undermines its own moral but encourages the idea that people who hurt you are good deep down inside and just need the chance to show it - even though a number of the people show that they are tribalistic and don't care about anyone outside their tribe.

Of course, this coming from the studio that brought us Stockholm Syndrome and the Beast, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.

But let me back up for a moment.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a movie about a young woman named Raya who previously was assigned to protect the Dragon Gem, a magical artifact created by the last of the dragons 500 years ago to hold back horrible fire monsters that were turning everyone in the world to stone. The whole world believes that this crystal gives her people, the people of the Country of Heart, a much nicer standard of living; however, as we learn from Raya’s father, this is a myth, and the crystal has no special powers beyond keeping the fire monsters out of the world.

Raya’s father invites the other peoples of the world to the country of Heart to all come together, as they once did long ago, and have there be peace between the peoples of the world.

As you might have guessed, this results in the other nations taking advantage of their hospitality to try and seize the Dragon Gem, resulting in it shattering, which causes the horrible fire monsters to come back and start turning everyone to stone, including Raya’s father. The only thing that can hold the monsters at bay are fragments of the Dragon Gem, of which there are five – and the leaders of each of the four other groups seize a chunk, in addition to the piece that Raya herself holds.

Six years later, Raya is a grown adult and is searching the world for the last dragon. She eventually finds her, discovering that the dragon has been in a sort of stasis for the last 500 years, but finds out that the dragon can’t just make another gem – that gem was created by the combined magics of the last five dragons, so the only way to fix it is to reassemble all the pieces.

Que the MacGuffin hunt.

While this might sound like it is a movie about a girl and her dragon, as it turns out, the other main character of the movie is actually Namaari. Namaari is another young woman who appears in the introduction, trying to befriend Raya, only to reveal her actual purpose in doing so was to steal the Dragon Gem. It is Namaari’s fault that the world is broken, and throughout the movie, Namaari is hunting Raya, trying to figure out what it is that Raya is after and to seize the artifacts from her.

Ironically, it was Namaari herself who had accidentally given the key hint to Raya to help her find the last dragon, and Namaari herself both respects what the dragons did and wants the world to be restored. However, she is not only deeply devoted to her people, and doesn’t really care about hurting other people, she has a streak of cruelty in her towards outsiders – this same sort of sadistic streak that had led her to hurt Raya in the first place. The two young women clash repeatedly throughout the movie in a number of well-choreographed fight scenes that are nice to watch, and the relationship between them works pretty well – while they hate each other, there’s also a certain thread of familiarity between them, and we see at certain moments that Namaari regrets what happened on some level but doesn’t believe things can be fixed. Of course, this thread of hope is repeatedly dashed as Namaari repeatedly does things to keep furthering the fight between the two young women, and Raya herself is unwilling to tell Namaari what is really going on, concealing her quest from her because of their past together.

This is all well and good, but the other characters are extremely flat.

Sisu, the titular Last Dragon, is endlessly full of optimism and trust. The movie seemed like maybe it was going to create some sort of middle ground with her – Raya starts out trusting no one, Sisu starts out trusting EVERYONE, and it seemed like, maybe, Raya would make Sisu realize that some people can’t be trusted while Sisu would show Raya that sometimes you need to trust people to have a happy ending.

But no, there is no character development for Sisu. She starts the movie the same way that she ends it, and there’s no real changes at any point. She does what Raya asks her to do, but she never really changes at all, and continues to blindly trust people and do the same thing over and over again.

The rest of the main cast are characters who come from each of the other countries – a young “captain” who cooks food and whose family has been turned to stone, a thieving toddler and her monkey sidekicks whose family has been turned to stone, an older warrior whose family had been, uh, turned to stone… okay, maybe a lot of people have been turned to stone.

Indeed, not only do the warrior and the toddler show more or less the exact same plot point (you can’t trust someone’s exterior, if you extend some trust to them they will trust you back) but they basically serve identical story functions. All three of the sidekick characters are mostly comic relief, but also show “Hey, there are people in this world you can trust!” The warrior is the strongest one of them, and also the funniest, even if he is something of a sad clown.

And the characters of this movie have Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. Namaari and her mother try to stab them in the back repeatedly. The leader of another one of the tribes try to stab them in the back to get the Dragon gems. The baby tried to stab them in the back before they recruit her, and the warrior ends up taking them captive when they approach openly with a gift to try and convince his tribe to give them their part of the Dragon Gem, per Sisu’s request.

In fact, pretty much everyone in the movie is either an untrustworthy backstabber or someone who shows up for one or two lines of exposition.

And while Sisu’s endless optimism works against some of these people, others actively reject the idea of people being nice to each other, and see such things as nothing more than an opportunity to take advantage of people.

The result is that basically everyone else is serving as a prop for Raya and Namaari. Sisu has a couple flashes of real emotion, as does the old warrior, but there is sharply limited character development.

All of this might make it sound like I didn’t enjoy this movie, but I actually did enjoy myself while watching it. The main reason why is the visuals.

This movie has really vibrant colors, and does a really good job of making its world pop. The various environments all look really good, and the different lands they go through all are nice and distinctive looking. In many ways, the visual design reminded me of video games, but in a good way – the striking contrasting colors between various groups and regions, the enemies being very distinctive looking and menacing, the statues that people turned into looking nice and eastern.

The action in the movie works well as well. The fight scenes look great, and there are various other action scenes, such as navigating past traps and the dragon hopping around in the world, that are a pleasure to see. The characters’ faces are well animated, and the movie does a good job of showing people holding back tears at several moments.

Ironically, the one bit of the movie’s visual design I wasn’t terribly fond of was the dragon herself – she’s a fluffy creature, but her face just seems a bit off for some reason, like it is a bit too simple, almost like an animated puppet or something. Still, her powering up as she got the various parts of the gem was fun enough to look at, even if it was only used in a very limited fashion and was ultimately largely extraneous to the plot.

The result is that, in the end, this is a movie about trust whose own plot shows that many people shouldn’t be trusted, and a movie with excellent visual design… except for one of the titular characters. I enjoyed the movie well enough while sitting through it, but…

It’s mediocre. Okay, even. But it’s not great.

Yup, I still exist! Kind of!

I haven't been around this site more than in passing in ages, but every once in a while I stick my snout back in and read a few things.

I hope the folks that are still watching this site are doing okay; I can see many folks haven't posted much, if at all, since the show ended, which isn't too surprising. I do still write reviews, just not primarily of fanfiction at this point; mostly of video games, really, seeing as I barely watch movies anymore.

Still, I thought that some people here might be curious about the latest Disney film, as animated movies about fantastical creatures are at least pony adjacent.

Well, theoretically about fantastical creatures, anyway.

Comments ( 13 )

One of my relatives categorically refuses to watch that movie, citing that the dragon looks like a furry Elsa as one of her reasons.

Good to hear from you. Hope you're doing well, mediocre Disney films aside.

Thanks for the synopsis, I've been curious about this one but for COVID and no-streaming-service reasons hadn't had a chance yet. Good to hear from you, as well.

Not having seen this movie, but just going off what you've described, I offer an alternative reading:

Maybe you can't trust everyone, but the only way to find out who you can (or perhaps more importantly, the only way anyone can know to trust you) is to lead with trust.

See also: The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma where [one of] the strongest strategy is to play "forgiving tit-for-tat" in which you start by cooperating, forgive an initial defection from your partner and continue cooperating as long as your partner doesn't defect again.

Best line: "Look how close my butt is to my head!" (Hey, I like Sisu. It's difficult to expect much character development in a character that old.) And if I'm going to channel my inner Belkar "How do you expect to get close enough to backstab somebody if you can't get them to trust you first?"

Of course, this coming from the studio that brought us Stockholm Syndrome and the Beast, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.

B&tB is a terrible example to use, honestly

My favorite exchange in the movie was at Sisu's initial appearance:

Sisu: "You broke it!?"
Raya: "I still have a big chunk of it, though?"
Sisu: "Is that supposed to make me feel better? If you lost a puppy, and I said 'Well, we still have a big chunk of it!' would that make YOU feel better?"

Sadly it made me think that Sisu was going to be far funnier than she actually was. It felt like they frontloaded her jokes very heavily.

Yes, the iterated prisoner's dilemma is a good model for trust. The problem is that the movie doesn't actually advocate for it and pushes the idea that Sisu's "always trust everyone" thing was right.

Thanks! I'm alright. Got my first COVID shot. I've been working in a cleanroom for the last six months, which is probably just about the best place to be during a pandemic.

But Beauty and the Stockholm Syndrome flows off the tongue!

It's actually a fine movie in context (well, okay, no, but it's fine in "magic fantasy land" where locking people up in castles is somehow "reasonable") but I had to make a joke about it.

I have to say, that description of Sisu makes me laugh.

Thanks for the review. This one has be on my watch it later list and now I know it can stay there a while longer.

Yes. This. I appreciate the message that was trying to be sent, but in actually the final message sent is honestly a pretty bad one to send. I think this video offers a pretty good analysis as to why. It's not a bad movie, but it's not really something I think kids should be taught.


Sisu's "always trust everyone" thing

Well, at least in the context of iterated prisoner's dilemma, an ecosystem of non-cooperative strategies is intensely hostile to individual cooperative strategies, but as long as there's at least someone else in the ecosystem playing a cooperative strategy (such as "always cooperate") then cooperative strategies have an opportunity to flourish. Once that happens, non-cooperative strategies have a much harder time maintaining dominance.

Again, without having seen the movie for myself, I'd argue that Sisu's role can be read as a bedrock foundation upon which a network of trust can be established in an otherwise hostile environment; leadership by example. I might even say the rampant betrayal is at least a fair warning that being trusting means you will probably get burned and you have to be prepared to accept that. (Honestly, a pretty nuanced message for a children's movie.)

Maybe I'm imagining a much better story than the one D****y told, but it at least sounds like they did a better job of telling a story less conflicted about its own values than the Mulan remake. And if I hadn't sworn off giving them my money after Endgame, I'd definitely watch this movie.

Considering all the sexual assault allegations flying towards Hollywood executives these past few years, I can't help but wonder if there's an ulterior motive to this "trust everyone" message that got deliberately bungled by the actual writers.

Thanks for writing this. I will watch some other movie this week.

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