FlixChatter Review: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Ok so even though I grew up watching a ton of Disney animated movies (especially the ones w/ princesses because that’s what many little girls do), I don’t immediately get excited for every new Disney animated movies that come along. In fact, you’d be surprised that I haven’t watched The Princess and The Frog, Coco, or even Moana [gasp!] – I know, that seems unthinkable since I’m a reviewer from Indonesia, right? In any case, when I first saw the trailer for this I thought it looked cool and yes, I’m always glad to see a movie with a largely Southeast Asian actors.

Raya and the Last Dragon is set in a fantasy world called Kumandra where humans and dragons lived together in harmony. I can’t help but think of How To Train Your Dragon after Toothless became friends with Hiccup. But then some ominous monster that looks like purple/black smoke known as the Druun basically destroyed that harmony, which led to the dragons sacrificing themselves to save humanity by putting their magic into a Dragon Gem. It’s now 500 years later and Kumandra is now split up to five regions/provinces: Heart, Fang, Spine, Tail and Talon. The opening scene shows young Raya (voiced wonderfully by Kelly Marie Tran) with her wise father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Heart Land discussing the upcoming visit from the other four regions. It’s clear from such a young age, Raya has always been a vivacious and quite fearless young woman and she’s been training to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. It’s during this visit that Raya was betrayed by another young girl from Fang called Namaari (Gemma Chan, sporting a rather odd American-accent) that not only creates more division between the provinces, but also brings back the nefarious Druun that turns anyone in their path into stone.

I have to say that it took me a bit to get into the story as I was distracted by low-resolution of the screener I got. I’ve talked about it a big here, for some reason the picture quality just doesn’t look sharp which is a bummer given how dazzling the visuals and colors are. Even besides that, that’s quite a complex backstory that makes me think that smaller kids might not be the target audience here. Plus, some of the scenes of peril when Druun wreaks havoc over Heart land can be quite scary for some toddlers.

The movie then propels us to years later when Raya is now a young woman whose BFF (who doubles as a transportation mode) is a cute Armadillo-type creature named Tuk Tuk. She’s on a mission to collect the shattered gemstones from the other four provinces and in that epic journey she ends up awakening the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) from its slumber. The tone of the movie immediately shifts from drama to comedy as soon as Sisu wakes up. Awkwafina’s comedic style and Sisu’s constant state of bewilderment is quite amusing. Now, the last dragon might sound so magnanimous and dignified, but Sisu turns out to be such a bubbly, perhaps even nerdy type creature that looks like a fluffy, elongated pony with cotton candy colors. The interactions between Raya and Sisu, who unsurprisingly becomes besties right away, is a lot of fun, especially when the shape-shifter dragon takes form of a human (complete with cotton-candy colored mane). I have to say though, the constant tone-shifting feels a bit off at times.

In her epic journey, Raya also encounters various characters, some more interesting than others. 10-year old boat captain Boun (Izaac Wang) and warrior giant with a big heart Tong (Benedict Wong) add some emotional layers to the story, as they deal with familial loss and loneliness. But the con-baby Little Noi with her monkey friends, not so much. In fact her scenes are perhaps my least favorite and is not the least bit funny. The comedic bits don’t always work well here, but by the third act, the movie has already shifts back to drama mode with some thrilling martial-art action thrown in. The third act also attempts to balance the backstory of Sisu’s family and the final confrontation between Raya and her main foe Namaari, and for the most part it succeeds.

Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (the latter also wrote the rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asians), I appreciate the filmmakers’ (well the big mouse studio’s) effort to have diversity and inclusivity – creating a strong heroine in Raya and crafting a story that honors the many South East Asian origins. I read an article that says the production team visited Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam for their research, so you see an amalgamation of those regions represented in various forms in the film, whether it’s in the culture, martial arts, food, architecture, etc. Speaking of the food, the movie made me hungry looking at those scrumptious SE Asian cuisines and snacks the characters are eating!

I feel like I should address some of the criticism I read online about how it’s lacking specificity and that the voice casting are not all from SE Asia. As someone born and bred in one of the countries used as inspiration in the film, I actually think it’s a bit unfair to expect a studio like Disney to create a perfect film that pleases every SE Asian person who watches it. I’m also mindful that discussion about representation doesn’t actually end up being more divisive among the Asian community by focussing on our differences instead of what we have in common. I realize the plot is rather generic, which is to be expected as studios always try to appeal to as huge an international audience as possible. Perhaps it’s too generic that one critic (of Caucasian descent) said the story is a Chinese mythology [face palm] … obviously out of ignorance. But despite its imperfections, I do think cultural representation is always a good thing and it’s a trend in the right direction. I believe [hope] that this is NOT the last Disney film with a protagonist of SE Asian descent.

Now, in regards to that plot which is far from revolutionary, there are some good things to appreciate. For one, I’m glad they didn’t force a love interest plot on Raya (as they did in a weirdly vague way in Mulan). The story is already strong as it is with its focus on family, friendship, trust and forgiveness. The rather dismal view of humanity is a bit odd though, as one character describes Druun as “a plague born from human discord,” suggesting that it’s the humans themselves as the bringer or our own misery. Perhaps that’s a bit dark for a kids or even teens movie, but hey, at least there’s still the positive and always-timely message about the importance of family and unity to balance it all. There’s also a teachable moments about Raya learning to trust again, though I wish it were delivered in a less clichéd and derivative way.

Visually, the film is a marvel. And I say this despite the low-res quality of my screener. The rich, vibrant colors; lush, stunning vistas with pain-staking attention to detail; and the well-choreographed action scenes are fantastic to look at. The score sounds wonderful as well thanks to James Newton Howard, incorporating some Southeast Asian instruments and themes. I especially love the action scenes between Raya and Namaari towards the end, and the fighting style and weaponry mixes various martial arts from SE countries, i.e. Indonesian’s Pencak silat, Muay Thai kickboxing, Filipino Arnis, etc.

But I think the real ‘weapon’ of the film is the heroine and Tran truly brought Raya to life wonderfully as a multi-layered character. Her voice alone is lovely to listen to, but she’s able to convey SO much emotion with her voice, especially in her desperation. There is something universal about Raya and her purposeful journey that should appeal to anyone of all ages, regardless of our ethnicity and background. A hopeful, feel-good story is something we all need today, and this is one that a whole family could enjoy for years to come as well.

Have you seen Raya and The Last Dragon? Well, what did you think?

Netflix Pick: Always Be My Maybe (2019)

I can’t remember when was the last time I was SO excited for a Netflix Original movie! But when the first trailer came across me a couple of months ago, I was immediately hooked on Always Be My Maybe.

Ok, the title alone, is a clever rift of Mariah Carey’s hit song Always Be My Baby. If you pay attention to the lyrics, well you could say it’s a bit of a spoiler for this movie. I for one love stories about romantic reunion (a la Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which highly influenced my own film Hearts Want) where the two leads who have a past reunite and sparks still fly between them. I love the way director Nahnatchka Khan sets up the story of Vietnamese-American Sasha Tran (Miya Cech) and Korean-American Marcus Kim (Emerson Min) from the time they were in grade school growing up as neighbors in San Francisco. While Sasha’s parents always leave her alone at home to work on their store, Marcus’ loving parents are often home that Sasha’s got a taste of her cooking skills from Marcus’ own mom. As they become teens, the two ended up hooking up (it’s no spoiler as it’s right there on the trailer) that ended up straining their relationship.

Fast forward 15 years later. Sasha (now played by Ali Wong) is now a famous celebrity chef living in L.A. who’s dating a hotshot, hunky manager (Daniel Dae Kim), while Marcus (Randall Park) still remains at home, working with his dad as an A/C repairman while playing in the same hometown band, Hello Peril. The stark contrast between their career and life trajectory is played on perfectly here, and a great source for jokes between the two. Wong and Park are so perfectly-cast and have such an amazing chemistry together, the most potent recipe for any good rom-com. The first time they see each other as adults is absolutely hilarious and perfectly captures how different their lives have become, yet some things remain the same.

Co-written by Wong, Park and Michael Golamco, the script is a refreshing delight in that it shows a believable world the Asian-American characters inhabit, without resorting to stereotypes. It’s also not just a generic Asian-American community, but two distinct communities of Vietnamese and Korean descents. Both Sasha and Marcus feel like real people, but yet not the typical Asian characters you see in Hollywood movies. One perfect example is Marcus’ loving and free-spirited dad Harry (James Saito) who’s as far away from the typical strict, business-minded, demanding Asian fathers as you can get. Harry is just one of the many memorable supporting characters here – I also love Sasha’s sarcastic best friend Veronica (Michelle Buteau) and Marcus’ exuberant girlfriend Jenny (Vivian Bang). But of course, one cannot review this movie without mentioning Keanu Reeves as Sasha’s new boyfriend who sure knows how to make an entrance!

Apparently Reeves is a fan of Wong’s stand-up shows and was happy to be a part of her and Park’s love story (as he was quoted). Fresh out of John Wick 3, Reeves actually filmed his scenes in between shoots for that action movie! Clearly he relished in the role of playing a version of himself, the ultra-famous Hollywood celebrity who can fork in $6k for dinner and wears expensive glasses without any lens in them, ha! The scene of their double date is a hoot and would definitely count as a rom-com classic, it even inspires a hilarious song featuring Reeves that plays at the end of the movie. As fun as Reeves’ role here, the stars of the movie are still Wong and Park, which is a testament to how well-written their characters are. If I had to nitpick however, is the Notting Hill-inspired finale. I feel that it’s perhaps deliberate and while the actors still made the scene their own, I wish they’d come up with something more original.

I hope one day that a Hollywood movie with all-Asian-American cast would no longer be considered a novelty. The success of Crazy Rich Asians opened the door (ok maybe a window) for movies like this one, which I hope will continue. Whilst CRA is perhaps more fantastical in nature, showing the top tiers of the 1% club, Always Be My Maybe is much more grounded. Now, just because the movie is important in terms of representation, it still has to be judged on its merit. I can say confidently that Always Be My Maybe is a great movie, period. It’s got everything one would want in a rom-com, plus SO much more!

The locations in the Bay Area is almost a character in itself and food naturally plays a major part in the movie, as they do in the characters’ lives. I have to mention that the production quality is top notch. From Sasha’s swanky restaurants, the ultra-posh (or should I say preposterous) restaurant where they meet Keanu are beautifully-designed, not to mention Sasha’s beautiful dresses. Oh, and those fabulous glasses! Between her chic specs and Keanu’s lens-free, dark-rimmed glasses, this movie is basically spectacles-porn!

But the secret weapon of the movie is the definitely the charming leads — Ali Wong and Randall Park are now one my of my all-time favorite rom-com couples! I’ve actually never seen any of Wong’s comedy specials, but I’ve been a fan of Park as a character actor in various movies. SO glad that they both have a chance to shine here in leading roles. You know the term ‘Asian Don’t Raisin,’ well it definitely applies to Park and Wong who are 45 and 37 respectively, yet they could believably pass as college students!

I absolutely adore this movie and I’m glad it’s on Netflix so I can watch it again and again. The zippy script fires humorous lines on all cylinders, but still packs an emotional punch. This is another great collaboration between Nahnatchka Khan and the stars Wong and Park, who worked together in the ABC series Fresh Off The Boat. I sure hope they’d all work together again in the future. Heck, I’d love to see a sequel to Always Be My Maybe, I think there’s plenty of places where the story could be expanded.


Have you seen ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE? I’d love to hear what you think!