I watched Raya and the Last Dragon yesterday because I’m an adult and I can do what I want with my own money, dammit! Truth be told, I mainly watched it because I’ve seen all the other Disney Princess movies, and the completionist in me knew my set was now incomplete. I knew basically nothing of the movie aside from the fact that Kelly Marie Tran was in it, so I tuned in expecting an hour and a half of songs, slick animation, and a resolution built around a message of togetherness. Instead, it felt like I was watching somebody else play one of 2021’s biggest upcoming video games. No game in particular, just some magical, soon to be released game that has everything I need. Raya and the Last Dragon is begging to be made into a video game, and now I’m begging for somebody, anybody, to make it.
Raya is not the typical Disney Princess movie. For one thing, there are zero songs. It has a similarly modern view of its female lead as the likes of Moana, but it builds the story very differently. Raya still has a fantastic, child-friendly narrative, a cast of funny and relatable characters, and is built around a magic princess, but its structure is completely different. It’s the way the movie is assembled, first and foremost, that feels so unlike a typical Disney movie and so very typical of a video game. I think Moana, Elsa, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Merida all clearly have the makings of a video game heroine, but their stories don’t really allow for the movie to be gamified as Raya and the Last Dragon does.
I really wouldn’t complain if someone made a Suicide Squad-style game with different Disney Princesses armed and ready for combat, but that’s not what I’m asking for here. It’s not that Raya deserves her own video game - although she does, she rocks - it’s that The Last Dragon is so obviously influenced by video games this now needs to happen.
The basic, spoiler-free plot of Raya is that she lives in a place once known as Kumandra, a place that has now divided itself into five sections through warfare: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail, each named after a different part of the dragon their land resembles. There is only one dragon orb left in the world, and this is housed in Heart, where Raya lives. This orb keeps the Druun, a group of monstrous black clouds capable of turning people into stone, away. However, near the start of the movie, Raya is betrayed by a new friend, and the orb shatters into five pieces. The Druun return, and each region takes a fragment for themselves. Now, the Druun lurk in every dark corner, only repelled slightly by each fragment. The only thing leaving humanity with a chance is the fact that the Droon cannot cross water.
This all happens in the first ten minutes. That’s the set up. That’s the reason for Raya’s quest. Any guesses what the rest of the film is about? Because as anyone who has played any game ever will have already figured out, since we’ve been told in the set up that there are five different regions, Raya has to travel to all five in turn, overcoming obstacles, helping out villagers - basically completing side quests - collecting each orb fragment, and ultimately taking on the one who betrayed her in a final showdown. Raya starts her journey with Heart’s fragment, then works her way from Tail to Fang collecting the rest.
I know the movie has just come out and I don’t want to spoil too much but come on; it’s a Disney flick. Raya’s not going to die, is she? That said, I’ll tread carefully and try not to give too much of the plot away.
In her quest to retrieve these four fragments, Raya is met with a number of challenges all typical of open world action-adventure games. In some cases, she must figure out puzzles and riddles to activate doors or avoid setting off traps. In others, she must infiltrate lairs. Sometimes, the main story will be roadblocked until she finishes a side quest, to make sure she has all of the right tools available to her and to ensure she’s not underleveled. There’s even a section where she’s captured and the bad guy takes all of her inventory off her. How cool is that? I mean, I hate those sections in games, but you don’t put something like that in a movie, especially not one already so side quest-y as Raya and the Last Dragon, without begging the comparison to a video game.
And can we talk about her sword for a minute? You put this sword in a video game and it instantly rivals the Buster Sword in terms of all time greatest weapons in a game. The intricately curved blade is deadly in battle, or at least it would be if this wasn’t a kid’s movie. Raya obviously doesn’t chop any heads off, but she does defeat everyone she comes across with ease. It’s not just the aesthetic though. The sword is also spring loaded, meaning it can burst out from the hilt and fly across the room thanks to an internal rope. Raya uses it to disarm enemies from far away or to swing across trenches in style. It’s a sword, a throwing knife, and a grappling hook all in one - and we all know every game ever needs a grappling hook now. Give me this in a game please.
Raya doesn’t just walk around either. When she’s not on her boat, she rolls around the desert (or snow, or grass; like any good game the regions are clearly defined by the environment) on her companion, Tuk Tuk. If you think of an armadillo, a chipmunk, and a woodlouse mixed together and made it the size of a horse - all while being cute and not horrifying - you’d have Tuk Tuk. Raya rides on his back as he plods along, but as soon as they’re in trouble, he can roll up into a ball and dash away quickly, all while Raya’s saddle keeps her safe and secure up top. Again, give me this in a game please.
Raya and the Last Dragon was so clearly inspired by video games that it seems cruel now not to let it have one. Imagine the crew at Insomniac behind this, or Toys for Bob. Imagine the Zelda team. When Raya’s prologue introduced the five regions I thought, “Huh, bit like a game, that,” but by the time the credits rolled, I needed the game to exist.
NetEase called it a bug, but others called it a feature.