Given the pandemic-related days to its release date, Raya and the Last Dragon, the 59th animated feature in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon has by chance landed on exactly the same weekend, relatively speaking, as Pixar Animation Studios' first release of 2020, Onward - the tenth weekend of their respective calendar years. And this makes it just irresistible to compare the two of them, though I suppose there's at least a good chance I'd have wanted to do that anyways. The two corporate cousins have had their similarities and dissimilarities over the years, but in this case, they've managed to overlap damn near perfectly, with a pair of films that shove anachronistic comedy, very unwillingly, into the material of a traditional fantasy quest, and not only for that reason mark the most acutely neither-here-nor-there, going-through-the-motions mediocrity that their respective studios are capable of shitting out.

The difference being that Onward isn't even very interesting to look at, all things considered, while Raya and the Last Dragon is, at least, sublimely gorgeous. Thank God for that, because if not for the wall-to-wall eye candy, I really don't know that we'd have anything to talk about here. It is not stretching things at all, I'd say, to suggest that Raya is the single best-looking film of Disney's CGI era. It has, for one very important thing, finally solved what has been my itchiest problem with Disney since 2012's Wreck-It Ralph (though it didn't start to really bother me, like, viscerally until 2016's Moana): the human characters' skin actually looks like skin, and not a sickly, inorganic sheen of vinyl. It stretches right, it has just the correct amount of internal glow. In fact, I think we can go so far as to say that surface texturing and rigging (how skin hangs on bones, clothes on limbs, and hair on heads) are two of the special triumphs of Raya and the Last Dragon, particularly since neither of those things have ever really knocked my socks off in any Disney movie till now. Given the different kinds of characters involved in the film - the titular last dragon is fuzzy, furry, and hairy, depending on which body part we're looking at, just for one - the texturing also has quite a lot of ground to cover.

Visually, in fact, that's not much to complain about with Raya. Maybe that it's fairly straightforward, unstylised photorealism, which is kind of boring over the course of an entire feature (there's a single sequence, in which a character narrates a possible plan for mounting an attack, where the style shifts into cel-shaded character animation with bold-colored, unmotivated lighting, and it looks very much like a comic book, and I was slightly heartbroken that the film didn't give us more of that). But it is superb photorealism, paired with some fantastic effects animation: the dragon in question manipulates water, in all of its forms, meaning lots of splashes, lots of rain, lots of fog, and it's magic fog, with shimmering iridescence, and it's magic rain that the dragon can turn into a stepladder, with splashes of color lighting up where her feet touch the raindrops. It's the best CGI water animation I've ever seen in anything from the Disney-Pixar-Etc. corporate sausage factory, blowing right past Frozen II and Toy Story 4. And to top it all off, the camera layout is some of the most dynamic in the studio's history, darting around with frenetic enthusiasm through the action setpieces that make up the bulk of the plot, wavering with a touch of handheld messiness but also the floating smoothness of Steadicam and the lack of physical tethers of a drone. That is to say: only in a cartoon could we see so much physically impossible cinematography whizzing about the briskly-moving human activity.

All of the above is meant entirely sincerely. Raya is a breaktakingly gorgeous film: beautifully designed, beautifully lit, beautifully animated, beautifully staged. But even for somebody writing his dissertation on camera layout in CG animation, "you guys, the camera layout was so good" is definitely the kind of thing one praises because theres's not a lot else that's praiseworthy. And thus we get to Raya's script, which is absolute doggerel. The most generous thing I could possibly work myself up to say is that much of this is nothing else than comfortable formulaic boilerplate from a studio that has refined its formula down pretty hard over the course of the 2010s. Specifically, Raya and the Last Dragon is very much "Moana, but..", and not all of the "buts" are bad. Taking place in a wide-ranging ecosystem as opposed to just on a whole lot of water is definitely a good thing, for example. But then, we also get the bad "buts", like "but it's not a musical" (though James Newton Howard's surprisingly hard-edged action movie score is one of the biggest triumphs), "but it's pretty bad at character interiority", "but it's wretchedly anti-funny", "but it takes place in some kind of made-up fantasyland that's an indistinct slurry of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and somehow Disney's marketing team has actually convinced a lot of people that this means it's 'good on representation', rather than that they indifferently dumped literally all of Southeast Asia into a giant bucket labeled 'Not-China', and then filled the cast up almost entirely with actors of Chinese and Korean descent anyway".*

Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of a place called Kumandra, which was once a prosperous land until 500 years ago, when an army of malevolent spirits called Druun were defeated by the sacrifice of all the dragons, who focused all of their power into a magical orb wielded by - wait for it - the last dragon, named Sisu. Since then, Kumandra has split into five warring territories, each named for its position along the dragon-shaped river that threads through the continent: Fang, Spine, Talon, Tail, and Heart. It speaks to the almost indescribable sophistication of the script, credited to Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim on top of the usual army of story people, that "Fang" is where the untrustworthy evil shitheads live, and "Heart" is where the noble visionary optimists live. As the film starts, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), chieftain of Heart, hopes to bring all five tribes into a unified Kumandra once more; unfortunately, Virana (Sandra Oh) of Fang is merely interested in using this gesture to sneak into Heart and steal the magical orb, which still resides in a vault in Heart. I feel like a god-damned four-year-old typing out these proper nouns. In the ensuing tussel, the orb is shattered into five pieces, the seal holding back the Druun is loosened, and in hardly any time, Kumandra has been turned into a wasteland where most of the human population has been turned into statues.

Six years later, Benja's daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), who was substantially responsible for allowing Virana to get up to her shenanigans, has looked in literally every corner of the land but one for the final resting place of Sisu. And we catch up with her as she arrives at that resting place, where she revives the old dragon, only to find that she's a bit of an addled, not-terribly useful hyper-optimist, voiced by Awkwafina. But the dragon can tell the human this much: the more pieces of the orb the pair can find, the more powerful she'll become, until she can reunite the entire orb to seal the Druun once more. And so they trek from one territory of Kumundra to the next, each of of them conveniently designed as a different ecosystem, all of them functioning very much as a Legend of Zelda dungeon, right down to how Sisu gets a new special ability that helps them beat the boss of each stage.

Is this terrible? It's definitely not "good". Raya and the Last Dragon starts out promisingly, with a thick sense of mythology and enough of a tease of world-building to get us going, and the leap ahead six years to a post-apocalyptic wasteland is a tremendously bold, exciting choice. It is followed by no more such choices. As a story, the film's biggest misstep is to break the orb into five pieces: we have to go collect every one of them, and they each involve both a setpiece and the acquisition of a new sidekick (all of whom are shrill and tiresomely "comic"), and the film's just not that long that it can handle all of that without going at a pretty fast trot. Though not so fast that I didn't feel the sands in the hourglass heavily thunking down when they got the third shard, and I found myself pondering whether we'd actually get all of this two more times.

So that's one of the two major problems with the writing: the pacing is mangled beyond belief. The film has simply no time leftover for letting us get to to know the characters, or the world, or simply enjoy a narrative beat; it has to constantly go forward at top speed, dragging its barely-defined cast along with it. To compensate, Raya and the Last Dragon has a profoundly irritating tendency to shout exposition and themes at us. The big one is that Raya has trust issues. We know this because in every single conversation she has the word "trust" is used approximately three-dozen times. The film does not demonstrate that she has trust issues, mind you; it merely posits them. "I do not trust people", she says, and Sisu replies "you should trust people", whereupon Raya retorts "but some people are untrustworthy", against which Sisu wisely parries "but if you give them a chance to show their trustworthiness, maybe they could be trusted". I am mortified to report that this is not nearly enough of an exaggeration of the film's actual dialogue. I get that this needs to be easy for eight-year-olds to understand the moral lesson, but Jesus. It's not even really a theme that fits into the plot mechanic; it's more like they wanted to make a film about "trust" and so they figured out a way to bend the villain's arc into a shape where you could plausibly say "Raya doesn't trust her" motivates the climax (the villain, by the way, is Virana's daughter, played by Gemma Chan).

The other major problem is the comedy. Dating back to Frozen for sure, Tangled in some ways, Disney's films have been poisoned of late by jarring, up-to-date quippy comedy that uses contemporary slang and even, sparingly, pop culture references, and I'm sure this is fine for some people. I hate it intensely; part of the appeal of Disney's film basically up until 2005 was that they took place somewhat out of time, and they had a slightly fusty, slightly arch way of writing to accommodate that. Not even just the fairy tales, either. There were pockets of attempts to break away from this, and they almost invariably resulted in the studio's worst films (e.g. The Aristocats, Robin Hood, or Oliver & Company), or the worst jokes (e.g. the film-destroying gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the brutal transformation of Mulan from a delicate fable of feudalism into an Eddie Murphy vehicle). Of late, this has been seemingly the only kind of humor Disney's filmmakers are interested in, and it simply murders Raya and the Last Dragon. There's simply no salvaging the film's sense of "mythic time" when every time Sisu opens her mouth, it's just Awkwafina being Awkafina, using the casual language of someone who spends just a tiny bit too much time on the internet. And while she's certainly the worst offender (right down to playing a dragon, she's to this film as Murphy is to Mulan, and less was going right here to begin with), less because of her performance than the lines she's been fed, Tran and Chan, in the other two primary roles, aren't really any better, making not the slightest effort to sound like they were alive at any point other than the second decade of the 21st Century in the United States.

And I dunno, maybe that works for you. It absolutely doesn't work for me. Raya and the Last Dragon is a fundamentally insincere movie, full of snide quipping and pandering gags (there's a room full of beetles that fart glitter - I'm not even sure what that's pandering to, but I know that I hate it) and a glib sense of modernism that makes it impossible to give a shit about its fantastical neverwhen vision of Southeast Asia, since it's very clearly not a real place with real stakes. It's just window dressing; the film feels like a template has had a few blanks filled in with Asian accoutrements, rather than a story that has been designed to take advantage of the location, or the time period, or the mythology. The film is so goddamn gorgeous that I almost can't stand it, and that's the whole reason I have given it my most unenthusiastic possible passing grade; this is the beauty of a hollow egg, a fragile surface surrounding a yawning, empty core of bad storytelling, vague characters, and terrible gags.

*In principle, this doesn't bother me any more than the smudgy all-of-Europe-all-at-once where the studio's old masterpieces like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and all the way up to The Little Mermaid took place. In practice, if the company is going to be this nakedly hungry for Wokeness Points, I'm afraid I have to insist that they earn them honestly.