After video games, animation is my favourite art form. I think that’s because both share a sense of limitlessness. While live action has the limitations of props, stunts, and the laws of time and physics, games and animation are only limited by imagination. Well, imagination and technology, and that’s why the water in Raya and the Last Dragon is so impressive. Technology – at least if you have Disney’s budget – is now on par with magic.
The titular Last Dragon is a water dragon, and so water plays a key role in the movie. We see mystical water droplets swirling in the sky, raging rivers, tremendous waterfalls, sudden downpours, and ripples emanating out from the various boats within the film. The Druun – the dark and mysterious villains of the film – are repelled by water, meaning most people now live on the shorelines or surrounded by moats. It isn’t just there for aesthetics, it plays a key role – literally and thematically – in how the story is constructed.
I’m also aware that this movie has only just been released, so I will tread carefully in terms of spoilers, but expect some minor ones ahead.
Water has always been something of a frontier, for both video games and animation. In games, water traditionally meant two things: a long and often laborious level, or instant death. The latter is easy to explain: water is typically very difficult to get right, and so rather than account for swimming mechanics, underwater physics, sub-surface level design, developers simply killed you whenever you got wet, and everyone knew not to bother anymore. However, if games did contain water levels, because these were so difficult to get right, it wouldn’t be a quick dip. If you were going underwater, you were going to stay there for a long time, because otherwise it wasn’t worth the efforts from the devs to construct. These days, technology has improved a bit, and the underwater sections of the upcoming Horizon: Forbidden West might end up being the best water levels yet.
Animation is similar. Most people think that Toy Story was the first mainstream presentation of CGI animation, but they’re wrong. Actually scratch that, most people don’t really care about cartoons. For those of us that do however, Toy Story is viewed as the groundbreaker, but The Simpsons, once again, did it first. Treehouse of Horror 6 debuted on American television one month prior to Toy Story’s cinematic debut, and features a CGI section called Homer Cubed. In this segment, Homer wanders up to a small pond, before camera zooms in on a droplet of drool. These days, both of these things look dated and weird, but at the time, they were the pinnacle of a new art form. In 2021, Raya and the Last Dragon is that pinnacle.
The characters aren’t photorealistic – although I don’t think they’re trying to be – but the water is unimprovable. There’s still room for different art styles and aesthetics of course, I’m not asking cartoons to just pack it in now, but I don’t see how anybody can get water that looks more like water than Raya and the Last Dragon. That’s a huge deal, not only because it is used so fantastically within the film itself, but because water is the thing animators struggle with.
It’s not limited to water either. At one point, Raya eats a thin soup with a slightly orange coloration, and we’re able to see the bowl through the translucent broth, and the tiny bubbles that appear around the ingredients as the soup is poured. Look, I promise, this is actually a very normal thing to be excited about.
Thematically, the water is in the film to symbolise purity; it’s no accident that humanity’s cleanest and most life-giving resource is the same one that drives the evil way. Everyone may retreat to their five different regions to live in war torn isolation, but they share the same river. They’re deeply connected by water; it’s water that makes them whole. This is really why the water in Raya and the Last Dragon is such a big deal. I say that games and animation are only limited by imagination and technology, but ‘technology’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. There are some stories we simply aren’t able to tell, because we don’t have the equipment available to showcase all of the elements. The main reason Avatar 2 still isn’t out is because so much of it happens underwater, and only recently did the tech exist to bring that story to the big screen. Raya and the Last Dragon proves that – budget aside – water is no longer a limitation to our storytelling.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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