One of the promo posters for Raya and the Last Dragon. Photo Disney
The Disney motto could be if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
The multinational entertainment giant is worth some US$130 billion because it knows how to pump out films that sell big, which is why Disney offerings keep returning to the same themes and tropes.
Princesses, parental separation, the hero’s journey and adorable animal sidekicks are just some of the ingredients for the Disney soup that results in ticket sales.
Animated film Raya and the Last Dragon was touted prior to release as breaking the mould, introducing the first Southeast Asian Disney princess and the first Disney movie inspired by the region.
In truth, Raya and the Last Dragon sticks to the Disney blueprint for the most part and the result is a hugely entertaining 117 minutes, with enough minor deviations from the formula to make one take notice.
Inspired by a region
Set in the fictional land of Kumandra, Raya and the Last Dragon focuses on Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran’s character Raya and her dragon sidekick Sisu, voiced by comedian and actress Awkwafina.
Kumandra, a region split into five warring kingdoms, has been afflicted by an apocalyptic plague of monsters called Druun which turn people to stone. Raya, Sisu and the companions they meet along the way are tasked with defeating the main antagonist Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan) and the Druun to save the world.
So far so Disney, but as it’s set in a world inspired by Southeast Asia, Raya and the Last Dragon features glimpses of the diverse cultures that make up the region, including a soup that reminded some young Vietnamese viewers behind me of Thailand’s tom yum, durian, dragon fruit and even some bánh tét (cylindric glutinous rice cake).
The screenwriters for Raya include Malaysian Adele Lim of Crazy Rich Asians and Vietnamese American writer Qui Nguyen and they felt great pride at the “small details” of the diverse Southeast Asian cultures they managed to get into the movie.
Nguyen told Time magazine: “We were all pitching different dishes and when you could get one little dish in there that was super recognisable, it meant so much.”
I watched Raya and the Last Dragon with a Vietnamese friend who did instantly recognise many of the details referencing Vietnamese culture but was less convinced that Kumandra as a whole or its characters were reminiscient of Việt Nam or Southeast Asia.
Whether these little pieces of Southeast Asian culture and the largely East Asian cast are enough to make Raya and the Last Dragon a Southeast Asian movie has been fiercely debated since the project was announced.
Stealing the show
Kelly Marie Tran plays the titular role in Raya and the Last Dragon. AFP Photo
What is less up for debate is how the film marks a triumphant return for the actress voicing its titular character.
Kelly Marie Tran suffered horrendous online racist and misogynistic abuse after becoming the first woman of colour to have a leading role in a Star Wars movie.
The experience forced her to leave social media and to add insult to injury, she and other minority actors had their characters largely relegated to supporting roles in the final film of their Star Wars trilogy, which it must be said is also a Disney production.
In Raya and the Last Dragon though, Tran is given the latitude to carry the movie and the result is a touching transformation of Raya on her hero’s journey from naivety, to cynicism and finally to hopeful and trusting.
Tran’s chemistry with Awkwafina provides some of the best laughs in the film, while the evolution of her relationship with Gemma Chan’s character provides the emotional core.
As any Disney movie does, Raya and the Last Dragon ends on a note of optimism and it’s clear to see the film’s message of the need for humans to come together to avoid catastrophe as particularly timely in this time of a pandemic and environmental mayhem.
While I find it hard to apply the optimism of Raya and the Last Dragon to COVID-19 given the disaster that has unfolded in my home country (the UK), Tran’s strength to overcome the abuse she has suffered to turn in such a performance should inspire even the most cynical. VNS