Raya and the Last Dragon review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Cast : Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 114 min
Opens : 5 March 2021
Rating : PG

Disney Animation has drawn on stories from various regions as the basis for their films. With Raya and the Last Dragon, the House of Mouse goes a little mousedeer, telling a story inspired by the mythology of Southeast Asia.  

Dragons were the protectors of the mythical land of Kumandra, sacrificing themselves to save humanity when monsters called the Druun attacked, petrifying all in their path. Kumandra is divided into Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine and Tail, each land named for a different part of the dragon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a warrior princess from the Heart kingdom, whose father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is training her to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. Chief Benja attempts to broker peace between the disparate lands, but the Druun return and the conflict continues. As an adult, Raya finds and revives Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. Raya and Sisu must unite the fractured pieces of the Dragon Gem to bring back all who were lost to the Druun. Along the way, Raya must face off with a figure from her past: the equally formidable Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of the Fang Kingdom.  

Raya and the Last Dragon is gorgeously animated and the world of Kumandra is a visually captivating one. The details in the costumes and architecture are plentiful, and the effects animation, especially on the angry black mist that is the Druun, is exceptional. The hand-to-hand fight sequences are well choreographed and there is a genuine sense of thrilling adventure to the story.

The voice cast is also excellent, with Kelly Marie Tran bringing both steeliness and warmth to the part of Raya. Awkwafina’s rasp works well as the voice of an animated character and she plays the fish-out-of-water aspect of Sisu entertainingly. Daniel Dae Kim effortlessly essays calm authority, while Benedict Wong seems to be having the best time as Tong, a boisterous gentle (?) giant type. Boun (Izaac Wang), a kid entrepreneur who runs a shrimp congee restaurant out of a boat, is also a fun, likeable road movie side character.

The most interesting part of the film is the rivalry between Raya and Namaari, and the possibility that they might still find common ground with each other. Namaari is sufficiently different from your standard snarling Disney villain, and this reviewer feels not enough of the movie is about this relationship.

While watching Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s evident that there is a tension between making this something fresh and innovative, while also honouring the storied legacy of Disney animation, and fulfilling expectations associated with its most successful films. As such, Raya and the Last Dragon can sometimes feel tied down to Disney animated movie formula. There’s a plucky princess raised by a single father, and she goes on a quest accompanied by a comic relief sidekick (or two or three). Sticking to a formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Raya breaks from formula in certain significant ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is still constrained by certain expectations associated with Disney animated movies.   

Tonally, there are moments that don’t quite work. This is a movie about a world and its inhabitants dealing with trauma and loss. However, it also wants to be light-hearted and appealing to children – hence characters like an adorable half-armadillo-half-pillbug named Tuk-Tuk (Alan Tudyk) who clearly exists to sell toys – not that we don’t want a Tuk-Tuk plushie.

Like the Dragon Gem, the story sometimes seems fragmented, and feels episodic the way many movies with a road trip structure do. Some of the dialogue is clunky, and several of the anachronistic jokes don’t work, including a moment when Raya proclaims, “bling’s my thing”. Several of Sisu’s jokes sound like improvisational riffs that Awkwafina came up with in the booth, and can be a little grating, but Sisu is generally likeable. Unfortunately, Sisu’s character design sticks out – typically, East Asian and Southeast Asian dragons are depicted with a maned head and a scaly body, but Sisu is entirely furry and doesn’t seem like she belongs stylistically.

Kumandra incorporates facets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos. For Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney assembled the Southeast Asia Story Trust comprised of experts in various fields, including an Indonesian linguist, a textile expert from the USC Pacific Asia Museum and a visual anthropologist. Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn is an artist of Thai descent, while co-writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim are of Vietnamese and Malaysian Chinese descent, respectively.

There is a desire here to tell a story that has a degree of authenticity, but “authenticity” is something that’s hard to measure empirically. As Moana did with Polynesian countries, Raya and the Last Dragon amalgamates and mashes up Southeast Asian countries to create the fictional Kumandra. While there is an overlap in the cultural traditions and mythologies of many Southeast Asian countries, residents of said countries would also generally prefer for others not to get one country confused with the other, and that creates a kind of paradox in telling a story that is inspired by a blend of cultures.

Watching Raya, it’s also hard not to think of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and the follow-up The Legend of Korra, which have thus far been western animation’s most successful attempts at creating fantasy worlds inspired by disparate Asian cultures. The world-building of Avatar seems more thought out than it is in Raya, but then of course the animated series had a lot more time to spend on that.

Summary: Raya and the Last Dragon sometimes struggles with telling a story that is authentic to the region from which it draws inspiration while also delivering what audiences expect from a Disney animated adventure, but it mostly succeeds in pulling off this balance. It may not be as revolutionary as Disney had hoped, but it is still a largely entertaining adventure that draws on rich storytelling traditions. Hopefully, filmmakers from varied backgrounds will continue getting the support they need in Hollywood to tell more stories from more places.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hellboy (2019) review

HELLBOY

Director: Neil Marshall
Cast : David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church, Penelope Mitchell, Brian Gleeson, Sophie Okonedo, Alastair Petrie
Genre : Action/Horror/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 hours
Opens : 11 April 2019
Rating : M18/PG13

           Last seen on the big screen in 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the antihero with the shorn-off horns returns from the fiery depths in this regrettable reboot.

Hellboy/Anung Un Rama (David Harbour) is a demon who came to earth as the result of a Nazi experiment in World War II and was adopted and raised by Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane). Bruttenholm founded the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development (BPRD), a secretive agency that protects earth from supernatural threats. Hellboy, who was destined to bring about mankind’s destruction, fights to prevent it instead.

Vivienne Nimue (Milla Jovovich), the bloodthirsty sorceress defeated by King Arthur (Mark Stanley) and Merlin (Brian Gleeson), is resurrected with the help of the humanoid pig beast Gruagach (Stephen Graham). Nimue sets her sights on Hellboy, attempting to seduce him to join her side and turn against humanity. Hellboy is assisted in his quest by the clairvoyant Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and BPRD agent Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who suppresses his own horrific supernatural abilities.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is one of this reviewer’s favourite comic book films. It is a pity that director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman were not given the opportunity to conclude that trilogy. Del Toro’s many gifts as a filmmaker include a meticulous visual sense, a knack for world-building and an emphasis on heart, all elements this reboot is sorely wanting for. There are enough superficial similarities with del Toro’s two Hellboy films to actively invite comparisons, none of which are favourable.

The Hellboy character was created by Mike Mignola, and this film purports to hew closer to the horror elements of the comics, taking inspiration from the arcs Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt, and The Storm and the Fury. While this is certainly more violent and gorier than del Toro’s take on the material, that doesn’t make it any more interesting.

Director Neil Marshall seems like the natural candidate for the material, given his background in British horror films like The Descent, Dog Soldiers and Doomsday. While he seems to be aiming for a pulpy B-movie quality which comes through sporadically, there’s very little in Hellboy to really care about. Much of the story is told in reams of exposition, and flashbacks that establish each new character feel like distracting detours. There’s little mystique or creepiness to the occult elements of the story, such that suspension of disbelief isn’t earned.

In Singapore, the film is being released simultaneously in M18 and edited PG13 cuts. We saw the PG13 version, which is obviously and awkwardly hacked to pieces. If you’re watching this at all, do not watch the PG13 cut. It’s still gory and three uses of the F-word make it intact in the dialogue, which seems puzzling. We’re not sure how much better the M18 cut is, we’re willing to bet not much.

Guillermo del Toro’s deep love for movie monsters meant that there was something fascinating about each of the creatures seen in his movies, something in their design and the way they were brought to life by suit performers and special effects. This Hellboy movie gives us vampires, giants, fairies, zombies, pig-men, jaguar beasts and all assortment of monsters, but they rarely feel convincing and often come across as synthetic and goofy. There isn’t much scale to this movie even though it wants to be an epic, rollicking adventure, and what should be exciting is rendered frenetic instead. Baba Yaga (Troy James and Emma Tate) is a legitimately creepy monster, though, thanks mostly to the prosthetic makeup effects used to bring the crone to life.

David Harbour will be the target of much of the ire of fans who have grown attached to Ron Perlman’s take on Big Red, but this reviewer is hesitant to blame him. Harbour, known as Sheriff Hopper from Stranger Things, does the best with the material he’s given and overhauled his physique to play Hellboy. Despite the name “Hellboy”, the character is a grown man, and that’s the biggest issue with this take – the character comes across as whiny rather than conflicted about where his allegiances lie. The sweetness and likeability that should lie just beneath the crimson surface are all but absent.

One of the movie’s big missteps is in depicting the relationship between Hellboy and his adoptive father Bruttenholm. There is no tenderness or affection, only shouting and pointing fingers, such that it’s hard to believe Bruttenholm ever really loved Hellboy. The emotional core of the movie should be that a man decided to adopt a baby monster he was meant to kill. McShane brings gruffness and gravitas to the part, as is his wont, but there isn’t much in the relationship to get invested in.

The one thing in this movie that seemed most enticing was the prospect of Milla Jovovich as a villainess – while she tends to be stiff in action hero roles, Jovovich can be delightfully over-the-top as evil characters. There is a bit of that here, but Nimue is mostly flat and never registers as a truly powerful malevolent force.

Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim attempt to inject personality into their supporting roles, but the things about their respective characters that are interesting are barely explored, while their back-stories are over-explained.

There was every chance that a Hellboy reboot could be done well, and there are tiny indications here of what could’ve been. There are still serviceable moments of action horror and while the jokes are more miss than hit, the general tone is fine. The bits of the film involving Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church) are the most entertaining. Unfortunately, it adds up to a disappointing whole, such that the sequel-bait ending and post-credits scenes feel awfully over-confident.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong