Here Be Dragons
Southeast Asia often gets overlooked. No country here is powerful enough (or troublesome enough) to be much of a player on the global stage. Overshadowed by the great ancient civilizations of China and India, and the pop culture powerhouses of Japan and South Korea (and the craziness of North Korea), the region keeps a low profile. Foreigners who can readily conjure distinct mental images of those other countries often draw a blank with Southeast Asia, or any of the nations therein. For such a vibrant region, Southeast Asia is noticeably lacking in soft power.
It is significant, therefore, that Disney has finally set a movie in Southeast Asia. And, whilst some of us feared the Mouse House was running out of imagination as it goes from one shitty live-action remake to another, it’s actually good, which makes it one of the few good Hollywood movies set in Southeast Asia (please don’t bring up Crazy Rich Asians; it sucked – though that was probably mostly due to the crappy source material).
Raya and the Last Dragon is one of the few good Hollywood movies set in Southeast Asia.
This animated movie is set in Kumandra, once a unified utopia, now split into five lands, each suspicious of one another, and ravaged by the Druun, crackling, swirling balls of malevolent energy, “born of human discord,” that consume people’s lifeforce and turn them to stone. The story follows Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), a feisty warrior-princess, and the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), as they seek to collect fragments of the Dragon Gem, a shattered artifact which, if reassembled, can wipe out the Druun and restore all the people they’ve petrified to life. Their journey will take them through the different lands where they will encounter a rival warrior princess (Gemma Chan), a child boat captain (Izaac Wang), an infant con-artist (Thalia Tran) and her three monkey accomplices, and a fearsome berserker (Benedict Wong).
Map of Kumandra showing the five lands it’s been divided into
Kumandra is, of course, a fantasy setting, but it distinctly resembles Southeast Asia (with some African and Germanic elements thrown in): some places in it resemble Thai palaces, others Malaysian/Indonesian fishing villages, the river the characters travel along looks (at parts) authentically muddy, the fauna and the sunlight form an impression of the outdoors that I have come to associate with heat, dirtiness, and extreme discomfort – which means that it’s been done right. The people in it, too, are, for the most part, distinctly Southeast Asian in their features, their clothing, their food, and even their martial arts. The score also has a Southeast Asian flavor, with traditional instruments, like the Indonesian gamelan, utilized well. None of the lands or cultures in this movie resembles any one country or culture in Southeast Asia entirely (and this seems to be a deliberate choice by the screenwriters, Vietnamese American Qui Nguyen and Malaysian Adele Lim), but the influences are unmistakably there. The dragons, too, are Asian-looking, though with some My Little Pony spliced in.
What’s good in this movie? The art and animation are gorgeous. The voice acting is great. The plot is not bad. We live in an age when the plots of so many films are stupid, stupid, stupid, and make no sense. The plot of Raya and the Last Dragon won’t blow your mind, but neither will it leave you scratching your head; it’s simple, and doesn’t try to be more than it is, and, in doing so, succeeds.
The plot of Raya and the Last Dragon is simple; it doesn’t try to be more than it is, and, in doing so, succeeds.
Some films have many themes. Raya and the Last Dragon really only has one: trust. The movie is very unsubtle about it and hits you with it over and over again. The Druun are the primary antagonists of this film and, as malevolent energy balls, are faceless, lacking in personality and motive, which is fine since they’re not really villains so much as manifestations of human distrust. The Druun spring from distrust between humans, whilst the dragons are benevolent and are always promoting trust. The protagonist, Raya, interestingly for a Disney princess, has a dark side in that she is extremely jaded and suspicious of people – the result of an early betrayal. The characters in the movie are constantly having to decide whether to trust someone else or not, and different consequences flow from their choices. The plot is predictable, and since this is a Disney movie where a happy ending is guaranteed, it’s not really a spoiler to say that trust is repeatedly betrayed before being vindicated, thus reaffirming our trust in trust and imparting the heartwarming, if naïve, moral that we should all trust each other more.
And that sounds like a good place to end this review. Likewise, Southeast Asian Disney fans trusted the studio to do right by their culture, trusted it not to cock things up, and that trust has been rewarded. Is Raya and the Last Dragon brilliant, unforgettable? No, but it is good, and worth watching, and, really, for a start, that’s enough.