By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is a very paint-by-numbers animated film which lacks originality. We are introduced to another princess with her pet, and we get to visit a distinct part of Asia! If I had to say which movie knows its mythology, Moana wins hands down!
The world of Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia is the spotlight in this latest film and sadly, the missed opportunities I noticed are plentiful. The distinguishing features of each region aren’t really played up and the story lacks a spiritual significance. Each nation has lost their focus ever since a magical crystal that can keep the Druun–rejected shadowy entities from Studio Ghibli’s Mononoke Hime–at bay.
The world of Kumandra was a cheerful place once. Humanity and the serpentine lived together in harmony, and there were no borders. When the Druun showed, everything changed. The dragons united to fight these dark beasts and sacrificed themselves in order to send them away. The last of them had a crystal, but when it ran out of juice, it fell to Earth and shattered. Each tribe took a piece and ran. Over the years, discord ran amok and distrust between these clans grew–an idea straight out of Lord of the Rings.
The plan to unite the world is copied from Avatar: The Last Airbender. One group isn’t likely to succeed given how warlike they are. Chief Benga (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart Tribe, another faction, knows bringing everyone together will be tough. He wants a peaceful way to unite everyone. There’s no prophecy to help either! All he has is hope and his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who will take his teachings to the next level.
When these clans are named after parts of a dragon, the significance doesn’t always measure up. To restore balance between the parts of the body is non-existent and nothing is even said about chakras, which is very important in Buddhism as a whole. To find the Last Dragon should mean searching to reconnect with those parts of the self that was lost. The seeds of this idea exist in the film, but it isn’t as developed as I’d hope. Plus, we don’t see the dragons as holy. The American Museum of Natural History has a better outline to introduce budding folklorists to what they must represent.
Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) is a crackpot who kind of knows these philosophies but doesn’t share. Instead, she’s more of a Phyllis Diller wannabe and Nora Lum’s (her real name) performance offers nothing new. Her chaotic good nature hardly helps to restore the world. She is just another Mushu from Mulan, providing more laughs and cute merchandise appeal instead of adding to the story.
Despite terrific technical achievements in character rendering, CGI design and cinematography, the overall composition isn’t enough to make this film a classic. Without the proper cultural milieu made front and center, it’s just another atypical Disney Princess origin story.
3 Stars out of 5