Raya and The Last Dragon (PG)
Starring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae
Directed by Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada
Boy, you can’t get any closer to home than this fascinating, enthralling and refreshingly familiar Disney cartoon about a feisty young heroine named Raya (Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran), warring tribes and magical dragons.
And I really mean “home” in two pointed ways.
Firstly, this colourful visual feast — directed by Don Hall (Moana, Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) and voiced by a mainly Asian cast — is inspired and influenced by everything Southeast Asian.
Which means that frequent travellers to our neighbouring countries will find this a spot-the-cultures blast. Primarily the heritage of the ancient lands of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia whose mystical folklore features, in some form or other, the revered serpentine spirit known as the Naga.
Although one of Disney’s research teams apparently came to our modern Naga-less Singapore, too. I don’t know, maybe to draw inspiration from our dragon boat races or our famous Dragon Kiln.
The second “home” reference is that “work from home” in our virus times has never taken on a more significant meaning in our viral times. This sumptuous location-shifting travelogue flick was reportedly put together by artists and other creative folks working remotely from over 400 homes. Which is truly remarkable because, just between us, I can’t complete even one single chore in my one single home.
Dragons, as you can tell, are a good thing here. They bring forth life-preserving elements of nature such as water, rain, wind, even fog. Unlike those homicidal fire-breathing monsters terrorising entire civilisations in Game Of Thrones.
Basically, dragons unify humans as a common harmonious belief to “build a better world”. But with these creatures having vanished for 500 years due to a menacing dark force, the last mythical dragon named Sisu (voiced unmistakably clear as day by Awkwafina) needs to be found, as the legend goes, for distrustful mankind to unite again. Kinda like in The Lord of The Rings, but with nobody there sounding as urban chick-chic comical as Awkwafina here. “Who’s your dragon?” she riffs like she's in Bangkok Town, NYC.
Both screenwriters here must have felt a big rush of woke empowerment in crafting such strong gender roles of fun female dragon and Good Girl Warrior vs Bad Girl Warrior as their central focus. Since they both have the necessary pedigree to go so SEA-native.
Playwright-writer-theatre dude Qui Nyugen is Vietnamese-American. His writing partner, Malaysian-born Adele Lim, of course, co-wrote huge ethnic hit Crazy Rich Asians.
Plot-wise, in a nutshell, Raya, the last survivor of her homeland called Heart, is on a quest to resurrect last dragon Sisu as everybody, including her enemies, is being threatened by the evil Druun. These are swirling masses of dark smoke, ala Harry Potter-style, that turn people into Khmer-like stone statues.
The only defence against them is the glowing Dragon Gem, previously belonging to Raya’s clan but now broken up into five far-flung pieces after a diabolical sneak attack upon Raya’s well-intentioned, eternally hopeful dad, Chief Benja, whom you know is voiced by Daniel Dae Kim because he's drawn to look exactly like Daniel Dae Kim.
The dude believes optimistically in the unity of humankind the way I believe in striking Toto. He naively invites all the tribes for a peaceful let's-all-get-along gathering before everything goes south and he himself is transformed into Mr Stoneface, too.
As the new guardian of the Dragon Gem, Raya goes riding off on some kind of armadillo-cute pet-giant all terrain wheel called Tuk Tuk (same as the Thai rickshaw, geddit?) to different lands, Mortal Engines-style, to summon Sisu and put the magical crystal together. Along the way, she gathers ragtag bunch of allies while confronting the movie's big bad warrior princess, Namaari (Gemma Chan), who seeks to possess gem herself and is primed to fight Muay Thai-style against Raya's Pencak Silat moves.
I tell you, Raya is very finely fleshed out here as our very own Asian Moana. Thanks to Tran's superb voice work, she takes over every scene she’s in with the best sequences being the ones where she's in deep personal conflict about whether to trust in the basic goodness of man as much as her stricken father.
The two rival girls are all business while Sisu the dragon is all comedian. She turns out to be just a junior water dragon who's less heroic than her advertised legend. “I got water skills that kill, I'm wicked when I hit the liquid,” Sisu proclaims with hilarious bravado in the way only Awkwafina can nail it.
Now, this magical dragon thingy prevalent in our part of the world may seem foreign to us here in our high-tech, un-supernatural city. But stick it out with this animated tale and you'll discover more and more precise bits which you'll find quite delightfully recognisable as the locales, costumes, customs, even martial arts stances of the various combatants become sights, sounds and specifics that ring many identifiable bells.
Because post-dragons disappearance, the great bygone SEA land of Kumandra has been split into five squabbling parts-of-dragon territories named Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail, with each now being separate and visually diverse but all are connected historically in a different-yet-similar manner.
You don’t need to be an anthropologist to see a Nations of South-East Asia being referenced here. The land of Fang with its distinct royal order and sculpted buildings looks a heckuva lot like Thailand. Talon, with its seedy seaside market and den of thieves, is probably modelled after a Vietnamese fishing village.
They’re stylised fantasies that have been ang moh-fied, of course, for a digestible Western palate complete with stock storytelling characterisations and narratives. Okay, I get it that Sisu doing the Robin Williams-Aladdin genie comedy act is a good necessary laugh. But I just don’t get the Boss Baby rip-off here as Raya is helped by a peculiar toddler con artist, Little Noi, and three annoying monkeys.
But that’s just a small gripe because this toon, with its store of rich, pretty Southeast Asian details, actually gives us more scenic, cultural and traditional relevance here than, say, even Mulan which was set in faraway China.
The bigger and more urgent grouse, though, is why this practice of Southeast Asian inspiration wasn’t carried throughout the movie when it came to casting the voices. Besides Vietnamese-American Tran as Raya, the rest of the other main roles are filled by non-SEA actors such as Awkwafina, Kim, Chan, Sandra Oh and Benedict Wong.
They are all really good. But it does make you wonder whether anybody even bothered to call Thailand’s Tony Jaa, Indonesia’s Iko Uwais, Malaysia’s Henry Golding or Michelle Yeoh or our own Michelle Chong to give this flick just the final touch of SEA authenticity it needs.
Raya And The Last Dragon is already a visually splendid film.
Now, that little addition would have made it simply audibly terrific. (****)