In early 2021, after a year of no major releases, Walt Disney Studios released Raya and the Last Dragon. On paper, Raya looked like a really cool movie, and an interesting departure from Disney’s usual musical, princess-focused fare. Raya is an action-adventure film starring a badass woman of color who was not dragged down by a romance (though she was clearly in love with her best frenemy Namaari). The world pulls from several Southeast Asian cultures, which should have brought a lot of fresh perspectives for Disney. Raya had a robust marketing campaign. There were posters and ads all over American cities, trailers played in front of many posts on social media, and it even had a special premium paywall at first, which implied that it was meant to be a huge release for the studio. However, despite this, Raya and the Last Dragon made very little impact. The movie came out in March 2021, and by mid April, hardly anyone was talking about it anymore.
Nine months later, Disney Studios put out another movie called Encanto. On paper, Encanto was set to be a return to form for the studio. It’s a musical, with a protagonist whose personality is way more in line with the Disney Princess of yore. Her family is magical, a subject that Disney has tackled more times in their films than anyone can count, and the music was written by cultural behemoth Lin-Manuel Miranda. The only opportunity for a fresh perspective in this film comes from the Colombian setting that Disney chose to use from this movie. Encanto also had a much less thorough marketing campaign. There were nowhere near as many ads, and the trailers felt nonexistent to the point where I had no idea it was even out in theaters. And it quietly released on Disney+ on Christmas for free, with little to no fanfare surrounding it. Despite this, Encanto has been a hit. Two months later, this film is still everywhere. The songs are earworms, with We Don’t Talk About Bruno hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and staying there for weeks. The fan community is thriving, with content getting hundreds of thousands of people engaging with it. Children all over the world are watching it repeatedly, and getting excited over the representation that it brings. Everyone is still talking about Encanto, while everyone stopped talking about Raya.
Encanto’s simplicity in its execution is what helped it establish its growing legacy. The film has a memorable cast of characters: a multigenerational family whose dynamics get examined over the course of the film. Each character gets to spend the runtime challenging the status quo and growing in an organic, interesting, and satisfying way. Tîo Bruno and the We Don’t Talk About Bruno musical sequence exemplifies this. The song’s opening verses efficiently set up Bruno’s situation: he is persona non grata because his gift (seeing the future) ruins people’s lives, including his family’s. After his song ends, the film allows us to meet Tîo Bruno and appreciate his journey toward being welcomed back into the family. Raya’s cast, on the other hand, feels more bloated and thin despite being approximately the same size as Encanto’s. This is because Raya has to spend a lot of time getting the party together and establishing a status quo before the characters can begin their story arcs. There is a character who joins Raya’s ragtag gang towards the end of the film, a revered ax warrior named Tong from the fallen kingdom of Spine. Tong’s story is really sad, as his whole kingdom was petrified by the Druun (the antagonists of the film, a mindless plague born from human strife and discord), including his infant daughter. He is the final piece of the puzzle in Raya’s arc, proof that even a grizzled warrior is worth trusting and befriending. He can help her save the world too. Tong also develops a cute relationship with a baby named Noi, filling the hole in his heart created by the petrification of his daughter. In theory, it is a very interesting character arc. However, it falls flat in its execution due to how late into the film Tong is introduced. By the time Tong feels like he has settled into the party and established dynamics with everyone, the film is at its climax, relying on a “power of friendship” moment that does not feel earned. Tong’s relationship with Noi is adorable, but it could have benefitted from more significant moments together. There just wasn’t enough time for Tong’s arc, as well as the other character arcs in Raya, to develop in a way that did not feel rushed.
Encanto chooses to set its entire story in one location: Casita, their magical house. Rarely do the events of the story stray too far from Casita, which is a smart storytelling choice. This allows Casita to feel like a member of the Madrigal family, deeply entrenched in the history and struggles that all the characters underwent, from Abuela’s journey all the way down to Mirabel’s. Each of the members of the family Madrigal have a personal connection to Casita, which are explored in the film, some in more depth than others. All of the members of the family (except Mirabel) have their own special room. When Antonio receives his Gift, there is a sequence of his room turning into a safe haven for critters to compliment his ability to talk to them. Isabela’s room is a beautiful, perfectly arranged bed of flowers, which complements her expectations of being the golden child. It is satisfying to see her redecorate her room and come out of her shell during her song. And finally, Bruno’s room is a dark, creepy cave filled with sand, which reveals his skittish nature and introverted personality. The viewer can see that Casita goes out of its way to fit the needs of every family member, and their rooms are a reflection of their personalities and Gifts. Though the film doesn’t show us every room in Casita, it can be inferred that the other rooms are as unique as the ones the film spends time in. Overall, focusing on one location allows the story to really flesh out its setting and make it feel alive and lived in. Raya, on the other hand, takes place in a world that is way too complex for its runtime. To its credit, the worldbuilding in Raya and the Last Dragon is awesome. The fictional kingdom of Kumundra has a lot of potential, and each of the five kingdoms has a lot of unique personality to them. It is also interesting to include a timeskip as a storytelling device in Raya, and to explore how strife and war can negatively affect how a country coexists. It is reminiscent of a world like Avatar: The Last Airbender. The problem is that Avatar is a TV show that had forty-ish hours to flesh out its worldbuilding. Raya only had two hours. As a result, all of the kingdoms felt underdeveloped, and it was difficult to feel invested in its world. There is a sequence midway through the film where Raya, the titular last dragon Sisu, and their third companion Boun go to the market based shanty-town of Talon on a heist mission to collect one of the dragon gems. This sequence had the potential to be amazing, as underbelly shanty-towns are perfect for shenanigans and memorable character interactions. However, the Talon portion of the film lasted about a half an hour, and every story beat felt rushed or too focused on the movie’s middling attempts at humor. It was hard to care about the kingdom of Talon as a result. It did not feel lived in, since we left as soon as we arrived.
Encanto offers a much more nuanced take on its themes, while Raya’s execution is more clunky and heavy-handed. Encanto is about trauma, and how that can affect multiple generations within a family and how they treat each other. Mirabel’s relationship with Abuela is the most interesting one in the film, and the resolution is presented in a multidimensional light that allows the viewers to sympathize with Abuela due to her own past, but to also understand how her actions have inadvertently negatively affected her children and grandchildren. Raya, on the other hand, has an interesting thematic throughline about the importance of trust and the power of friendship, but due to the previously discussed issues of character relationships and worldbuilding feeling thin and underdeveloped, the themes are less deftly executed. This is most apparent in Raya’s relationship with her frenemy Namaari. Since the friendship barely had time to develop, the betrayal and then the journey back to friendship doesn’t hit as hard as it should. All the characters repeatedly telling Raya to trust Namaari certainly did not make it feel nuanced either.
Overall, Encanto is an extremely strong film, with a tight and focused plot that allows for interesting character development throughout its lean runtime of ninety minutes. Combine that with catchy songs that do some of the lifting of the character work, and it’s no surprise that Disney has a hit film on their hands that will be talked about for years to come. A follow-up TV show starring the Madrigals would be extremely welcome, but Encanto stands strongly on its own. On the other hand, Raya and the Last Dragon is hurt by its medium. It probably would have made much more of an impact had it been a TV show or a video game. Raya’s world is brimming with untapped potential, but due to the constraints of film and the screenplay’s inability to juggle all the moving parts, it is instead an undercooked and (unfortunately) forgettable movie.
For a further in depth discussion on the comparison of these two films, I recommend watching this video.