Raya and the Last Dragon
So far, we’re about three months into 2021, and already, I have good news and bad news.
The good news is that the COVID-19 vaccines are now offered to many Americans everywhere. With our shot, or two, we’ll soon be immune to the disease that put such a grinding halt on our day-to-day activities last year. The bad news is, there’s still some mending for us to do as far as the political and social discourse is concerned. What’s not helping is the news that, as you may remember me mentioning in my recap of last year, became so opinionated and so insistent on what’s the truth and what’s not to the point of twisting it if need be, that they’ve all become a joke to me.
Well, take my word for it: the point is, I think Raya and The Last Dragon could not have come at a better time.
Inspired by Southeastern Asian mythology, the story is about a young girl named Raya, who was trained by her father to protect the Dragon Gem. It was said to possess the soul of a dragon, and not just any dragon, but one of the dragons who helped save their homeland of Kumandra 500 years ago from viral beings called the Druun. Wherever they spread, they engulfed everything in their paths and turned anyone it was in contact with into stone. Unfortunately, due to an accident that Raya was involved in, the Dragon Gem shattered into pieces. It unleashed the once-imprisoned Druun into Kumandra, and each piece was stolen by five tribal leaders who wanted the power of the gem for themselves. In so doing, all they caused was further discord between themselves and their people, causing Kumandra to split into five opposing nations: Raya’s homeland, Heart, plus Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine. As soon as these desperate actions left Raya’s father for dead, Raya, still upholding her upbringing and the duties bestowed upon her, spent the next six years of her life seeking the last remnants of the Dragon Gem. She hoped that by doing so, she would’ve restored peace to all five nations of Kumandra and united them back into the country it once was. One of the first major steps for her to take was to summon the last dragon alive: a water dragon named Sisu, played by Awkwafina. With Raya’s reliance on Sisu for her supernatural powers, the two of them embarked on a quest to find the pieces of the Dragon Gem and have a chance at uniting them. Along the way, they were accompanied by a young boy who’s an excellent chef, a baby who was not who she seemed, and a bumbling one-eyed man who was not always confident with himself. They were also followed by a young woman from Fang named Namaari, who knew Raya when they were both younger and played a role in Kumandra’s splitting and the nations’ constant wars against each other.
The plot seems pretty complicated, I know. But who are we kidding? I think after getting constant remakes and sequels over the past five years or so, it is continually a breath of fresh air to see from Disney. And with Onward and Soul out and about and a few more original films on the horizon, I’m looking forward to seeing what more they can bring to the table.
The animation is just breathtaking. It helped make the landscapes and environment feel as authentic, believable, and exotic as it is, and they made us feel like we were transported into a land that’s far behind us and yet so familiar to us. I especially liked how all the human characters were designed; part of what made them so fascinating was that they were no different from each other, yet the clothing styles, aesthetics, and style seemed to differ based on each nation of Kumandra. And it maintained its cultural inspiration with some Asian-esque clothing to boot. They were very nicely utilized, cleverly explored, and taken the most advantage of on an aesthetic, creative level. The dragons, including Sisu, were neatly conveyed, too. While not portrayed like mighty gods, they were nonetheless showcased with a high level of elegance and a traditional sense of grandeur.
The characters themselves were very delightful. After seeing so many girl power ads everywhere, I found Raya to be a very sophisticated and pretty intriguing female lead. She’s definitely a warrior like Mulan, true, but what I admired about her was that, for all her physical abilities, she was never seeking any fame or glory. Instead, she decided to find the Dragon Gem’s last remnants and restore peace to the land just as her father’s upbringing encouraged her to do. And her dilemmas in this movie were all very understandable as she had to deal with mistakes she made concerning the Dragon Gem, especially when she was younger. And if that wasn’t enough, those mistakes also played a part in her father’s death. Because of this, for all her determination and attempts to restore peace to the land, she still had personal doubts that made her suspect that there may have been no way to restore peace and that the five nations would always have gone to war against each other. Plus, her gem-hunting experiences gave her an eagle’s eye outlook on who to trust and who not to trust since so many people out there were ready to kill each other. To see her so confident and yet so conflicted in her intentions and goals made her feel very human, very complex, and very identifiable.
Sisu, the water dragon, was a captivating, high-talking, delightful bundle of energy. Her mannerisms throughout the movie were very witty and showed her off as the bubbly, more cheerful half to Raya’s serious, more uncertain half. She provided most of the film’s silliness, and it was compelling to see her reacting to the world that it had become compared to the world she knew 500 years ago. She reminded me just a skosh of the Genie from Aladdin in how she was an over-the-top wisecracker with some dilemmas of her own. Of course, it was revealed halfway through that, being a dragon, Sisu also had shapeshifting abilities that allowed her to turn human. By then, her communications with other people and her surroundings only added to the excitement that came with her explorations of what she and Raya had to deal with. Not even the Genie, in his human form, had as much of a chance to leave as significant a mark in the cartoon as he did in the live-action film.
For some strange reason, I got the feeling that some of Disney’s remakes, as of late, have been developed only to experiment with some elements that would have been perfected in later films. Like, say, how The Lion King remake perfected the technology needed for The Mandalorian, or how the Dumbo remake perfected the technology for The One and Only Ivan, or even how the Aladdin remake intended to embellish the techniques needed for Raya and the Last Dragon. Besides just cashing in on the Disney classics, I like to think that that was the secondary reason these remakes were greenlit in the first place. Because if so, they are using their creative experimentations to good use, even if the executions were pretty skewed and not well thought out at times.
The supporting characters were all fascinating in their own right. There’s a baby from the Tail region, Little Noi, who was surprisingly agile and accompanied by three monkeys – excuse me, Ongis – as they pickpocketed other people in her nation, as well as Raya as soon as they approached each other. Their expressions and agile energy were pretty feisty, adorable, and funny to see. There’s also a young boy, Boun, who happened to be a very skillful chef and manned a boat that he used for transportation and which belonged to his family. There was also an intimidating one-eyed man from the Spine region with an eye patch named Tong who looked like he was not somebody to mess with. But it turned out he somewhat showed no spine, or so he and the others would’ve liked to think. And as soon as these people, plus Raya and Sisu, started to band together to restore peace to Kumandra, they began to form a very oddball but still endearing sense of camaraderie between them that made them stand out as a great team.
One other factor that added layers to these supporting characters was that for all their comedic show, they showed elements of being affected by the encroachment of the Druun in some way, resulting in changes to their personality and habits. After the Druun turned his family into stone, Boun struggled with maintaining an entire boat and restaurant, which was usually a family business, all to himself. Tong had to cope with how he was the Spine nation’s sole survivor after his people and family were turned into stone by the Druun. That’s why he was prone to act like the Cowardly Lion of the group sometimes. And for all her physical agility, Little Noi was pickpocketing other people because of her not having her parents or family around to help her through these desperate times. Instead, she relied on the three cunning monkeys to help her with her crime spree.
But the most fascinating character in the movie, to me, was Namaari from the Fang Nation. At first, when she and Raya were kids, they both appeared to be on good terms before Namaari revealed herself and only tricked Raya into bringing her to the Dragon Gem so that she can hijack the gem and help bring power to her family and nation. Namaari had also become feisty, fierce, and bloodthirsty in her quest for the Dragon Gem’s remains as she matured, especially when she and Raya reunited six years later, which only their chemistry even more fiery. But once Namaari saw Sisu, there’s a part of her that made her reconsider her goals and even attempt to fight back against Fang’s ideals, like she wanted to help Raya and restore peace but also wanted to uphold her family honor. The way it’s set up, they reminded me a bit of Moses and Rameses from The Prince of Egypt. One had the firm, good intention to lead and try to set things right, while the other tried to maintain her honor in the face of rising clashes in society, and both were conflicted about their responsibilities.
What drew me into the story was its mythological feel. It drew its inspiration from many countries in Southeastern Asia, including Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Their cultural aesthetics were displayed superbly in the surroundings, and they all added to the articulacy and atmosphere I felt from watching Kumandra in all its activities. Not only that, but the idea that Kumandra, a country, was born purely out of fiction and had all its inspirations infused in its DNA was just a spectacle in an of itself.
The distinctness and uniqueness of Kumandra’s five organizations after they split were something to behold, too. They each represented specific parts of the Dragon, which all of Kumandra was in the shape of, in its limbs, such as, once again, the Talon Nation, the Heart Nation, the Fang Nation, the Spine Nation, and the Tail Nation. At first, the way each nation functioned and what they all represented reminded me for a short while of the five elements in Asia. As in, fire, earth, water, wood, and metal. But then, I discovered that those were the five elements in Chinese culture, not Southeast Asian culture. But still, I got a similar impression studying the five nations of Kumandra, and that added to my contemplative taste of Asian culture through Kumandra.
The movie’s mythological legends and prophecies were very intriguing and creative. Kumandra, when it was still one country, relied on the dragons like they were their spiritual gods. But then, when the Druun arrived, the dragons managed to steer them off, but at a high cost, for they sacrificed themselves to protect the people from the Druun – all but one, anyway – by giving up a portion of their power to forge the Dragon Gem. And while peace was temporarily restored to the humans, once they turned back again into humans after being turned to stone the first time, they started to go at war against each other in pursuit of the Dragon Gem.
I was also curious about how, whenever the Druun got in touch with either the dragons or the people, they turned them into stone. Throughout the movie, it looked as if once the people have turned into stone, they stayed dead. However, it also became more apparent as the movie went on that once the Dragon Gem remnants were put back together, the people turned into stone can be brought back to life. Because the movie talked primarily about war between the nations, I was beyond curious about this. The idea of people being brought back to life despite them being turned into stone by the Druun, some people might find that as cheapening the drastic effects of the deaths at hand. And, even that got me wondering what would have happened if there were just as many people slaughtered by human hands as there were people who have died, so to speak, from being turned to stone. Would only the slaughtered ones have stayed dead while the stoned ones could have lived again?
As far as the juxtaposition between these two fatal outcomes is concerned, the closest the movie ever came to that, surprisingly, is with Sisu. While her dragonkin and all the people turned into stone, Sisu was actually shot, although inadvertently by Namaari after Raya interfered under the impression that she would have gone ahead and killed her anyway.
Another thing that caught me off guard was that if the Dragons would technically have been dead the first time around after restoring peace to the humans, how did they come back to life at the end of the movie, too? I guess that the humans went out of stone the first time around because of the Dragons giving up their powers to restore them to how they were. But if that was the idea, then the little bits of pieces that went into this legend and execution were pretty compelling and very nicely woven. Besides, war was not the main focus of the movie, anyway. The main focus was instead on distrust and how much it can tear people and nations apart. So I’m cool with that.
And with Sisu, I didn’t mind because her then-revived dragonkin came to bring her back to life with their own powers, anyway.
When I saw this movie, I saw it in theaters, and I saw it with a friend who was on a world tour with her mother in her earlier years. Some of the countries they visited included Thailand and Vietnam, and amazingly, she recognized some of the fruits and even names shown in Raya and the Last Dragon from her visits to Vietnam. Among them were the Dragon Fruit, the Jackfruit – she described it as a cross between an apple and a mango – the Durian – this is almost like rotten eggs and sulfur, but as a fruit – and even the name Tuk-Tuk, which was the name of the armadillo-like creature Raya rode around with. A tuk-tuk is a cute little taxicab that operated throughout most of Asia, mainly Thailand and Vietnam. To see so much detail, creativity, and thought being put into this movie as far as Asian culture was concerned was not only impressive, but it might open your eyes a little more to what more we have yet to explore in the world around us.
Unlike Mulan, which was basically about war, Raya and the Last Dragon dealt with war, too, but the main issue was not with war, but instead with trust. Because of the Dragon Gem’s value, it made so many people blind with hunger and power as they sought to take it for themselves. And like I said, this couldn’t have come at a better time. As I’m writing this, America, too, is dealing with not only a disease wiping out so many people – in our case, it’s the COVID-19 – but also with people at war against each other to pursue power and gain superiority, especially in politics, over others.
As a result, the timing of Raya’s release, on top of what the movie itself had to say, makes it lean more towards MASH ethics than it does Mulan ethics. The reason being that both films tackled subjects of war while, at the same time, putting that in the background to focus on even more significant, critical issues that tied into the battleground, with some goofy moments to spare. In MASH's case, it poked fun at the hardcore commitment. In Raya’s case, it poked fun at the hardcore distrust. And in both cases, these movies came out when America went through EXACTLY the same issues they each addressed. Of course, as of late, Disney was no stranger to making questionable decisions, too. Only in their case, let’s say it regarded borderline censorship, and I was a little worried that they may have sneaked in some shred of propaganda in some of their latest movies. I’ll explain more about why I feel that way when I get around to it.
For the time being, though, I can safely say that Raya and the Last Dragon was indeed a marvel and an astounding piece of animation at its finest. It conveyed sophisticated issues that kids can follow up on and that adults can relate to, just like a masterful family film should. It benefitted from great characters, superb Asian representation, phenomenal world-building, masterful animation, traditional storytelling at its most creative, and one of the potently timeliest messages ever conveyed in a family film since Zootopia.
Collect your share of the riches with this one.
My Rating: A strong A-
Whenever I look at the monkeys from the Tail nation...is it me, or did they look like they carried some shades of stereotypical Asian qualities, not unlike what the Siamese Cats from Lady and the Tramp did? With censorship and political correctness becoming hotly-debated topics in American society as of this writing (and rightfully so), it’s a bit odd to see this in a recent Disney movie inspired by Asian culture. Of course, while I found it worth mentioning, I’m not making such a big fuss over it, am I? If they’re not that big a deal as far as the movie as a whole is concerned, then none of us should make a fuss about it, anyway. All that matters is that they’re as funny as Little Noi when she does her thing.
I found some of the audience reactions to this movie to be quite interesting. Before the movie even came out, many people were hesitant about its potential because it looked it would have ripped off Avatar: the Last Airbender, which is understandable. Now, one of the more noticeable gripes I noticed from them was that there wasn’t enough time devoted to the characters or Kumandra. Some even went as far as to say that it might have worked better as a miniseries. If a movie like Raya and the Last Dragon was able to evoke that kind of comment because of how unique it was and how it left them wanting more, then you know it did something right.