Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney Doing What They Do Best

Dept. of Tom Yum Cravings


Disney’s ambitious new animated feature, Raya and the last Dragon is a visual treat that seamlessly references the mythology of Southeast Asia and blends it with their tried and tested formula to create an exciting new action adventure. There are warring factions and villainous mystical forces. There are dragons and magical gemstones. There are badass princesses who use both their hearts and their heads to achieve their goals.

This stunningly intricate and thought provoking movie is a fun and immersive experience, and the kind of output that belies the House of Mouse’s reputation as a shameless manufacturer of mass market cash grabs.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan: I have a lot of thoughts about this movie. But the first one is that it is an absolute travesty that so many people, kids especially, aren’t going to be able to experience it on the big screen. 

Raya and the Last Dragon was made for the cinema. It is epic in scale, it is gorgeous to look at, it has some of the best worldbuilding I have seen come out of Disney in a long time, and it is incredibly moving. This is precisely the kind of movie you want your kids to watch on the big screen. This is the kind of movie that’ll have them fighting on the car ride home over who gets to be Raya. This is the kind of movie that needs to be watched with other people.

Bahir Yeusuff: I agree and I disagree. While I do think that this is a movie you should watch on the big screen, I also believe that there is a lot for parents to think about at the moment with the pandemic and all the COVIDiots around.

There’s such lushness in every scene that to watch it on the small screen just wouldn’t do it any justice. (I don’t care how big your TV, or that silly projector you bought from Lazada is, watching it in theaters is still a different experience.)

There are beautiful water droplets, and fire, and grass, and sand, and dust. The sound design is great, the character animation is beautiful, and to watch that in any other way would be such a shame.

Also, I echo your statement about how this is a movie for the kids, but not in a bad way. This is a great story wrapped up in so many little Southeast Asian details that to not give the movie the chance to play on a big screen, to not be able to experience it on that scale, would be absolutely unfortunate. This could be an unforgettable experience for a young Asian kid. To see things you recognize as being something of our own, in a Disney movie, is pretty effin’ cool.

Raya and the Last Dragon

UA: Which is why I think Disney should have waited. I know we live in the age of streaming, but to effectively “dump” this on Disney+, is to not afford it the same respect as say Black Widow for example. And this is a movie that deserves that respect.

This isn’t Mulan mind you. This is what Mulan should have been. This was a movie made by people who put in the time, who painstakingly crafted a world with a deep and rich mythology, who created characters that are relatable and fun, and who did so by tapping into the legends, lores, and traditions of this part of the world.

For me, this is the best kind of cultural homage. When you take these incredibly specific stories and adapt them into something universal. When you use them to create whole new worlds. I love it.

BY: And Mulan is a perfect example of a superficial nod to another culture. It’s lip service. It is the retelling of a Chinese myth/story for the American public. (Or in the case of the live action movie, rehashing it in order to make money in China.) It never delves past the warrior woman story to appreciate – or even acknowledge – the cultural context. Raya and the Last Dragon, however, does a wonderful job of sidestepping the mythological landmines by creating a new world, populated by fictional people, but using culturally specific design details to tell a universal story.

I have to admit, ever since it was announced that Disney was making an animated movie, written by a Malaysian-born screenwriter, I was both excited and apprehensive. When the first images were released, I did the shallow thing of wondering which of the different groups of people reflected and represented the different countries of this region. Even while watching it I kept finding myself thinking about those questions. But it wasn’t important. It wasn’t important that one group of people wore batik and had wayang kulit. In the world of Raya and the Last Dragon, these five clans, and that is quite a thing to hear when considering the history of Southeast Asia. But again, that’s not important.

UA: Which speaks volumes to who we are as a region doesn’t it? We’re cut from the same cloth, we share so much in common – culture, religion, traditions – and yet we spend all our time arguing over who batik belongs to. If stories like this serve one purpose, it is as a reminder of just how much we share. (Not that I am calling for some kind of “Konfrontasi” or anything to reunite the Nusantara.)

For me, Raya was a great example of what Disney does best. (When they actually get it right.) The writing in this movie is beyond reproach. There are so many characters here and you are invested in each and every one of their backstories. Each one has action and agency. Sure, their motivations may be a little basic (what is a Disney movie without a dead, missing, or incapacitated parent?), but they nevertheless remain individuals in their own right. And that means there are characters here for all of us.

Raya and the Last Dragon

BY: If I had one issue with Raya, it’s that the story didn’t blow me away. I was invested. I enjoyed the journey. The characters were great for the most part (one group of characters in Raya’s band of merry mercenaries was definitely for the kids so I let that slide), but I knew exactly where it was going. The story felt a little paint by numbers for me.

But don’t take that as a reason to not watch Raya and the Last Dragon. I think the story being fairly formulaic takes nothing away from the 115 minute run time. You will enjoy it. Your kids will enjoy it. The story may not evoke Frozen levels of thrills for the children, but it’s still a stonking good movie. I just wish it was a little more PIXAR is all.

UA: I think that was my only nitpick with this movie. Unlike Frozen, or Zootopia, Raya and the Last Dragon did feel a little predictable. You know exactly how this is going to play out. You can see every story beat. You know exactly when they’re going to make you cry, and when they want you to laugh. 

But I think their approach to the story is what makes this movie stand out. It’s the small moments where this movie shines – like when Sisu and Boun talk about losing their respective families and make an offering by laying flowers in the river, or when characters remove their shoes before stepping into sacred places. They’re so well observed and casually presented. They make the movie look and feel different from everything else they’ve done.

BY: I loved those moments. And just like you, I loved how casually, how matter of factly, those moments played. Sure the laying of the flower offering was a little more obvious, but even then, it was never milked for an emotional payoff. They were moments that felt so natural to the world of Raya.

Also, you, me, and everyone else in Southeast Asia watching this movie would is going to have a serious tom yam craving when they leave the cinema. (I’m glad they never actually called it that in the movie.)

As someone from Southeast Asia, it was nice to see little bits of our identity in this movie, even if it didn’t play out as that. Those moments made the movie deeper and gave it a richer background and history that a digital wall or computer screens never could. 

Raya and the Last Dragon

UA: I really enjoyed how much of an action adventure movie Raya and the Last Dragon was. Yes, it’s a family film. Yes, it follows the prototypical hero’s journey to a tee. But as far as genre beats, the movie takes a leaf from movies like Indiana Jones and Princess Mononoke. I liked that there were emotional stakes to the MacGuffin. I liked that the dragon’s gem had an actual impact on these characters.

BY: That gem actually had real stakes to it right? It wasn’t just a MacGuffin. The gem didn’t open a door to a magic cave that held the last dragon. The gem was the key to solving this immense problem that they were all facing.

UA: And Sisu was more than just your typical comic relief Disney sidekick…

BY: Another thing was the decision in having the dragon show up so early in the story. It wasn’t in the final act of the movie, once they had gathered this merry band, and all the pieces of the broken gem. Sisu was an early introduction to the gang and became a vital foil to Raya in her hero’s journey. The writers could have very easily taken a more conventional route by making the gem be the reason for the gang to come together, and right at the end, have Sisu show up and show them the way. Instead, Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen weaved Sisu and Raya together to be the backbone of this motley crew. It was such wonderful storytelling.

UA: And the message of not being able to change the world without first changing yourself is one that will resonate with everyone. It’s a potent call to action and one that should spark quite a few conversations between kids and their parents.

Raya and the Last Dragon

UA: Can we please talk about Kelly Marie Tran? Her performance as Raya was absolutely flawless. Her ability to channel everything from comedy, to compassion, to straight up badassery really made the character. Her voice never once got lost in the lushness of everything else around her. I loved it.

BY: I thought Kelly Marie Tran was excellent. She was able to deftly tread that emotional line without being melodramatic or too “hard.” She was completely believable as a young woman who had experienced loss in her past, but isn’t being weighed down by it.

Awkwafina however is a completely different matter. I think the animators leaned on her performance HARD, so much so that I did feel she was a little distracting. There is a tight line to walk when you’re animating a character and using reference footage of the performer acting out the lines. A perfect example of this is the late Robin Williams and the Genie in Aladdin. Yes the performance is Robin Williams, but it’s Robin Williams if he was a genie. In Sisu’s (and Awkwafina) case, I think the animators went too far into Awkwafina that I couldn’t not see her on screen.

UA: Awkwafina was… Awkwafina. Like you, I could not distinguish the actor from the character. I too found it incredibly distracting. Especially during the comic moments. I actually preferred the more quiet moments when she would briefly get lost in the character.

BY: Those moments were great, but very brief. And far between. There almost seems to be a distrust in her being able to pull off those moments, but when it does come, Awkwafina does it very well.

UA: These minor nitpicks aside, I think everyone involved in this movie really brought their A-game. What’s more, all of this is greatly supported by what has to be James Newton Howard’s strongest score in years. There was so much variety to the music. There were subtle homages to the movie’s regional inspirations. There was a fantastic action beat. It really did feel magical.

BY: The music was absolutely excellent and the use of regional instruments gave it a new flair that really made it stand out.

Raya and the Last Dragon

UA: I don’t know about you, but I’m going to need to watch this one again. I feel like I need to immerse myself in this elaborate world that Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen have created. I feel like there’s more that I want to explore.

BY: Just say when and I’ll be there.

Raya and the Last Dragon is now in cinemas. Catch it while they’re still open.

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