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?