Rich film let down by lack of cultural specifics

In Raya And The Last Dragon, Raya (left) is voiced by actress Kelly Marie Tran.
In Raya And The Last Dragon, Raya (above) is voiced by actress Kelly Marie Tran.PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY



114 minutes/Opens tomorrow in cinemas and on Premier Access on Disney+

3/5 stars

The story: Hundreds of years ago, the mythical land of Kumandra was populated by humans and their friends, the dragons. The dragons sacrificed themselves to stop the evil force called the Druun from destroying the land. In the present day, human greed causes the Druun to resume their attacks. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) must reawaken the dragon magic by finding the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) or Kumandra will remain forever haunted by evil.

They have done China (Mulan, 1998 and 2020), Polynesia (Moana, 2016) and mediaeval Scotland (Brave, 2012), among others, and now comes the Disney treatment of our neighbourhood, South-east Asia.

Kumandra is a sincere - and to this South-east Asian, flattering - attempt at distilling everything that is unique and appealing about the region that stretches from the Philippines and Laos to Indonesia and everything in between.

The result is a Balithaibodia or Philvietmalaya, a generic and easily digestible Instant Asia presentation with the depth of the show of the same name that tourists to Singapore used to enjoy.

But arguing about the film's cultural vagueness is perhaps missing the point, because this is a movie about a Disney princess and culture is background, not foreground.

Still, the knock-on effects of the film's lack of cultural specificity hurt the characters. Tran's Raya, for example, is a shallow pool of noble intentions. She could have been from Kansas, for all her ethnicity mattered.

Meanwhile, Awkwafina's Sisu comes out of the Disney warehouse of quippy magical sidekicks.

Like hearing Robin Williams' voice as Genie (Aladdin, 1992) or Dwayne Johnson as Maui (Moana), the listener is torn from the movie's magical place and sent hurtling into a Los Angeles comedy club or, in the case of Awkwafina - given her accent and style of comedy - into the fabled realm of Queens, New York.

There are strong and, in some places, breathtakingly beautiful action set-pieces that stretch the film's PG rating for violence. There are settings so stunning - especially one located in a waterside village - it will elicit aesthetic shivers not felt since Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away (2001).

One has to admire the chutzpah, and perhaps also the hubris, it takes to condense a region as culturally and ethnically diverse as ours into one "look". If anyone can do it, Disney can.

In doing so, however, it toned down the heat and robbed it of its pungent funk.

It is street food, dressed up restaurant-style. It is cleaner and less likely to cause offence, but it is no longer street food.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2021, with the headline 'Rich film let down by lack of cultural specifics'. Subscribe