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

Big Hero 6

For F*** Magazine

BIG HERO 6

Directors : Don Hall, Chris Williams
Cast : Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Génesis Rodríguez, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., T.J. Miller, Daniel Henney, Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Animation/Family/Action-adventure
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences) 
Run time: 108 mins
Moviegoers everywhere are still chanting “make mine Marvel!” and with the announcement of Marvel Studios’ exciting Phase 3 slate, it seems this chanting will continue. Here’s something a little different: the first Disney animated film to feature Marvel characters.
Hiro Hamada (Potter) is a 14-year-old robotics prodigy living in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo with his older brother Tadashi (Henney), under the care of their aunt Cass (Rudolph). Tadashi convinces Hiro to turn away from illegal bot-fighting and to put his intellect to good use by enrolling in the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Hiro is introduced to robotics pioneer Professor Callaghan (Cromwell) and Tadashi’s friends at the institute: the tough, no-nonsense Go-Go Tomago (Chung), the bubbly and eccentric Honey Lemon (Rodríguez), the heavily-built but timid Wasabi-No-Ginger (Wayans Jr.) and laid-back comic book geek Fred (Miller). Hiro befriends Baymax (Adsit), a healthcare robot invented by Tadashi. When a masked supervillain named Yokai threatens San Fransokyo using microbot technology developed by Hiro himself, these friends must put their scientific knowledge to use, assuming the role of superheroes.
            Big Hero 6 is a loose adaptation of the source material by writing collective Man of Action and one of Marvel’s weirdest super-teams (yes, even weirder than the Guardians of the Galaxy) has been transformed into a cuddly bunch packed with plenty of kid-appeal. For example, Baymax is a shape-shifting robot/dragon in the comics and is not at all cute. Here, he is a comforting, eminently huggable, marshmallow-like medical care robot. The simple, charming character design takes inspiration from the field of “soft robotics” and his face is based on a Japanese suzu bell. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have created a crowd-pleasing animated film with fun action sequences, rib-tickling jokes and a good measure of emotion – plus a sprinkling of Tony Stark-style “building the tech” montages. While it is a very familiar story with plenty of plot devices and character types we’ve seen before, Big Hero 6 acknowledges and embraces this and doesn’t feel like a soulless re-tread.

            The design team goes wild with the opportunity to mesh San Francisco together with Tokyo, resulting in amusing, eye-catching touches such as the Golden Gate Bridge with Japanese torii gates in place of its usual towers. While the action is fun and a sequence of Baymax soaring in-between the skyscrapers of San Fransokyo is sweeping and beautiful, there is a lack of truly memorable action set-pieces. The titular team, despite being diverse, seems somewhat homogenised, fulfilling the requisite character types every bunch of rag-tag heroes must possess. There’s the tough chick whose catchphrase is “woman up”, the lanky, hyper nerd, the big guy who’s meek and cautious on the inside and the slacker dude. To the film’s credit, it’s able to keep the energy up enough such that we can go along with the clichés instead of having them pull us out of the experience.

            The voice cast is effective and entertaining. While these certainly aren’t unknowns, there doesn’t seem to be any blatant celebrity stunt-casting going on. Japanese-American actor and martial artist Ryan Potter gives a fluid, affecting vocal performance, managing to make Hiro sympathetic in his moments of grief without coming across as brooding and angsty. Scott Adsit is marvellous as Baymax, conveying endearing warmth and care within the confines of having to sound sufficiently robotic. T.J. Miller has been the comic relief dude bro in a number of films, and he sticks to what works for him here, the geeky Fred providing a dose of genre-savvy winking at the audience. Jamie Chung doesn’t have too many lines since Go-Go is the strong, silent type but she does convincingly sound like someone who won’t take any guff from anyone, playing somewhat against her sweet public persona. Interestingly enough, Génesis Rodríguez’s Honey Lemon is the only character who pronounces Hiro’s name accurately, with a Japanese accent, which is neat.

            While Big Hero 6 falls a little short of the emotional depth and dazzling imagination of Wreck-It Ralph and is not as clever a take on the superhero genre as The Incredibles was, it still is well-made family entertainment. It’s easy to see why Baymax is the centre of the film’s promotional material – the movie is titled Baymax in Japan. He is loveable in just that right way, without being cloying or too obviously, artificially cute. He’s a robot who is programmed to care and the bond that forms between him and Hiro does give the film a good deal of heart. Feast, the short film preceding the feature, is about a Boston terrier who experiences his owner’s romantic relationships by sharing in all their meals. It’s not quite as sublime as Paperman, which ran before Wreck-It Ralph, but dog-lovers will find it utterly irresistible. Also just as with the live-action Marvel movies, be sure to stick around for a great post-credits scene.


Summary: Not particularly cutting-edge but still entertaining, funny and sufficiently moving. This holiday season, kids will be quoting Baymax rather than singing “Let It Go”.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong