The first original Walt Disney Animation in nearly five years, Raya and the Last Dragon is set in a realm known as Kumandra – a reimagined version of our world heavily inspired by Southeast Asian culture.
If this might have some up in arms about a Hollywood studio once again trampling into another continent for a swift bit of cultural appropriation, it’d be an unfair accusation.
Disney’s Southeast Asian Story Trust, a coalition of anthropologists and other specialists, led the scrupulous research for the project, while Thai-born Fawn Veerasunthorn (Moana ) is credited as head of story.
It means this brightly hued fantasy comes with a feeling of authenticity, rather than being just another cartoon cranked out to appeal to the Asian market.
The story focuses on Raya (voiced by The Last Jedi ’s Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior princess who must go in search of dragon gems (something akin to the infinity stones in Marvel’s Avengers saga ) to bring peace to her land. The Druun – fearsome, smoke-like creatures that hundreds of years earlier caused chaos when humans and dragons lived in harmony – are back to cause more strife.
To help in this mission, she must hunt out Sisu (The Farewell star Awkwafina ) – a verbose turquoise water dragon, the last of its kind. “I’m not, like, the best dragon,” she opines. Her magic power? She’s a strong swimmer (“I slaughter when I hit the water!”).
Joining them are a ragbag of characters, including a light-fingered toddler, three monkey-like creatures and Tuk Tuk, a sort of armadillo-pill-bug hybrid that rolls around like an armoured tank.
Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, Raya and the Last Dragon may be ultra-respectful to Asian culture, but it’s less concerned with plundering from Indiana Jones; as our heroine traverses booby-trapped catacombs, there’s a real feeling of Steven Spielberg’s intrepid archeologist here.
The animation even switches to anime for one delightful section where they hatch out a plan to retrieve one of the gems.
Among the supporting cast on vocal duties, Doctor Strange star Benedict Wong pops up as an eye-patch-wearing giant, Lost ’s Daniel Dae Kim voices Raya’s father, and Gemma Chan is Namaari, a rival to Raya. There are plenty of chases, fights and leaping about, but the film works best when Sisu is on screen.
Awkwafina’s rat-a-tat-tat patter (something of an equivalent to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin ) brings the story alive, adding another memorable character to the Disney canon.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.