By John Liu
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The last five years have been exciting for API Disney movie lovers. In 2016, we got Moana, the first Polynesian princess. In 2020, we got a live action remake of Mulan. Now our first Southeast Asian Princess! In normal times, I would have set up a movie social event with 10 friends or more to see this movie. Since we’re in a pandemic, I pitched in with a friend to pay $30 to see this movie on Disney Plus from the comfort of my own TV.
Raya is a computer animated action film distributed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada. The script was written by Qui Nguyen and Crazy Rich Asians writer, Adele Lim. That’s right, two Asian writers, and they did a fantastic job.
There once was a prosperous land called Kumandra where humans and dragons lived in harmony. Then all of a sudden, Kumandra was attacked by the Druun, purple and black cloud-like monsters described as a mindless plague that consume everything in its path. Humans turn to stone when touched by a Druun. The remaining dragons used the last of their magic to form an orb known as the Dragon Gem, and then were also turned to stone. The last dragon, Sisu, used the orb to rid the land of the Druun and then disappeared. Five-hundred years later, Kumandra is divided into five lands with different tribes that resemble a dragon: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail. (The next part has plot spoilers so skip the next paragraph if you are concerned about that.)
Chief Benja (Danie Dae Kim) wants the tribes of Kumandra to be united after years of war. His plan is to have a celebration banquet for the people of Kumandra. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), the daughter of the chief, tries to befriend Namaari (Gemma Chan), the daughter of the Fang chief (Sandra Oh). Things do not go as planned as Namaari attempts to steal the Dragon Gem. The orb shatters, and the Druun are released once again. Each tribe escapes with a piece of the orb. Many people are turned to stone, including Raya’s father. Six years later, Raya embarks on a perilous journey with her faithful pet, Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), to save Kumandra by finding Sisu (Awkwafina). Namaari will constantly be a thorn in Raya’s side. Along the way, Raya will meet some charismatic survivors from the other lands. Captain Boun (Isaac Wong) is a cute little orphan who runs a restaurant on a boat. Baby Noi (Thalia Tran) and her three monkeys are mischievous thieves. Rounding out the gang is Tong (Benedict Wong), a warrior that’s more bark than bite.
Kelly Tran does some outstanding voice work here as Raya, and I could feel the emotion in her voice. Sisu is the perfect role for Awkwafina and will serve as the comic relief for kids. If you have seen any of Awkwafina’s last movies, you will be familiar with her distinct voice and mannerisms. Now imagine her as a furry dragon! The dialogue is funny when it has to be, and serious during CGI fight scenes.
You will be mesmerized by the Southeast Asian culture references throughout the movie. My wife pointed out the Thai influence in costumes. Later in the movie, we are introduced to a boat captain who is an amazing cook. We get to see a close up of congee, tom yum, and many other Asian cuisine featured on the big screen.
As a foodie myself, it is a real treat. You will definitely be hungry afterwards. My only gripe about watching it on TV was the Kumandra world looked so amazing, I wanted to see it in 3D. Unfortunately, there is no 3D version this time because of the pandemic.
The film production was finished remotely because of the pandemic. That means hundreds of people were working at home.
“Ninety-five percent of the production of this film was done at home,” said director Don Hall. The actors had to set up makeshift sound booths for their voice recordings. I watched their red carpet premiere after finishing the movie, and the actors said they had never met face to face. I assume they met only on Zoom.
That makes Raya even more impressive since it had to overcome such tough circumstances.
Although kids will definitely enjoy this movie, there is plenty for adults. Five tribes are battling for their own survival. Can people put aside their differences and make a better world? Or will they all be turned to stone?
We see these conflicts happen every day even outside of this film. Sadly, we are still in a pandemic, and Raya pulled in only $8.6 million in U.S. movie theaters. Please support Asian representation and watch this movie.
Raya and the Last Dragon is currently playing at local theaters and Disney Plus.
John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.