Being a Malaysian and Southeast Asian (and literally writing a review blog called A Naga of the Nusantara), I was naturally excited to see that Disney is finally turning their profit machine to exploiting my regional culture. Okay I know that sounds cynical but I am realistic about these things—the House of Mouse is in it for the dinero and if they are somehow able to stumble into successfully giving respectful representation to Southeast Asia, it’s a win-win situation all around. Now, Moana is one of my favourite Disney films of all time but in spite of all its best intentions in consulting experts from the cultures they were representing in their “Oceanic Story Trust”, they still did not escape without controversies. I will confess right now that I simply do not have the cultural competency to see the faults that real Pacific Islanders see in that film, and as a result, Moana‘s story and themes resonated very strongly with me. I am not saying they are wrong. I am saying I am blind.
Well, my eyes are wide open now. Like with Moana, Disney built a committee called the “Southeast Asia Story Trust” which okays whatever bits of culture they would be appropriating for the film. I know “cultural appropriation” is a loaded term, and I am not above criticising some creatives of doing it when I find it was done disrespectfully or ignorantly (cough live-action Mulan cough), but I don’t see it as an absolute bad thing since admittedly, the line between appropriation and reverence is a mile-wide no man’s land of grey. Now, even though they had two writers of Southeast Asian descent writing the script and Vietnamese American Kelly Marie Tran to star as the titular Raya, ALL other major characters cast in the film are East Asian in descent. Awkwafina, the other titular character, is Korean American along with Daniel Dae Kim and Sandra Oh. The main antagonist, Namaari, is played by British Chinese Gemma Chan, the same as another supporting character Benedict Wong. In the roll of secondary characters, only Boun (Izaac Wang) and Little Noi (Thalia Tran) can boast SEA ancestry. There is an “all Asians are interchangeable” thing that is going on here which I generally excuse, but it matters more this time since part of the concerns surrounding Disney trying to tell a Southeast Asian tale is the fear that they are unable to differentiate Southeast Asia from East Asia. This compares very unfavourably to the voice cast of Moana, which consisted of an almost completely Oceanic pedigree. And I don’t buy the excuse that there are few SEA voice acting talents. I am a huge fan of the animated show Steven Universe, and just in that alone, they have Shelby Rabara, Deedee Magno Hall, and Jennifer Paz who are all Filipino Americans. Brenda Song, who headlines Disney’s Channel’s Amphibia, is Thai American. If they want a big name, Michelle Yeoh is right there along with her Crazy Rich Asian co-star Henry Golding. I just think they didn’t care as much in this case to make the effort as they did with Moana.
I think part of the reason why Pixar’s Coco was received so warmly by the Hispanic community was the cultural specificity that the film displayed. I’ll admit I bawled by eyes out watching the film and I still put on the scene where Miguel sings to Mama Coco now and again if I want to flush out my tear ducts. And the reason why it works for me even though I don’t have single drop of Mexican blood in me is because that film achieved a form of universality in its specificity. The emotions come from the recognition of moments and experiences that are similar to those in my own culture, in spite of it being set half a world away in a country I have zero connections with. Raya and the Last Dragon looked at Coco and went “Okay, but what if we do the exact opposite?” They poured a lot of efforts into putting in a lot of specific cultural touches of art, food, and habits into the visual language of the film, but for whatever reason, they ended up with a rojak fantasy world made up of 5 nations, none of which can be mapped to any specific Southeast Asian country or culture. They are all just generically “Southeast Asian”, and while there is a huge admixture of cultures between different countries here in the region, you can para-drop me blindfolded in any one of them I’ll still be able to reliably tell you which country I am in because we are unique and different, yo.
I mean, if I am being honest, the project is kinda doomed from the start on the representation front. Southeast Asia has about the same population as Europe—imagine if Disney announced that they are going to make a movie representing ALL of Europe’s cultures. They wouldn’t because that would be bananas, but for some reason, they assumed it would be achievable for SEA, one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world and hoped that the two SEA writers they hired would be able to make it work.
And y’know how when one complaints of systemic discrimination, there is always that one dude that goes, “I am not racist, I am colour blind“? This is that, but in film form. In its eagerness to achieve a unity in aesthetics, they commit erasure of diversity. They may have Kelly Marie Tran speaking through Raya, but any distinct voice of Southeast Asian culture had been muted. Yes, I know this isn’t actually set in the real Southeast Asia but in a fantasy analogue world called Kumandra, but that doesn’t lessen the sensation that the nations of Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine, and Talon felt like they lack soul for a Southeast Asian film-goer like me. They felt like products, like a T-shirt with a batik print on it that says “I Love Southeast Asia”, meant for the consumption of tourists. They failed in what they said they expressly said they set out to do: representation. Because I sure as heck don’t feel seen or represented in any of the 5 Franken-cultures portrayed in the movie (one of which is, I am not kidding, a nation of con artists and pickpockets).
So representation is a bust, but what about the actual story? Well, like the visuals the story is also culturally flat. Instead of adapting any particular SEA stories or legends or mythical characters (the way they did with Maui in Moana), they just went with a generic naga, which they don’t even call a naga in the film but rather, anglicised it as “dragon”. I must say though that I do like Sisu’s character design which, while cutesy and has My Little Pony-esque aesthetics, displays a distinct look that separates it from from a Chinese lung or a Japanese ryū. Raya and the Last Dragon tells a story of how long ago, five nations lived together in an uneasy peace. Then everything changed when the Fang nation attacked. Only the last dragon can fix the broken world but when they world needed her most, she was nowhere to be found. 500 years had passed and Raya rediscovered the missing dragon named Sisu. And although her swimming skills are great, she has a lot to learn before she’s ready to save anyone. But Raya believes that Sisu can save the world.
In case you aren’t familiar, that’s almost a beat by beat plot summary of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: the Last Airbender which plays in front of every episode of the show. So yeah, the similarities between Raya and the Last Dragon and Avatar: the Last Airbender did not end with just young Raya dressing like Katara/Korra, or the fact that Kumandra features an ecology of hybrid fantasy animals that mix two or more species together (consider Raya’s pill-bug dog armadillo mount to Korra’s polar bear dog ride). Heck, there is even a proud and arrogant princess a la Zuko who pursues Raya and Sisu across the land. While Avatar has its problems, at least one can recognise how the Air, Water, Earth and Fire nations represent Tibetan, Inuit, Chinese and Japanese cultures…
Okay, okay, I’ll let this go now.
Overall, I still mildly enjoyed the film though I feel it can be more subtle about its themes surrounding trust and unity—which it hammered over and over again at me every chance it got. And since the emotional core of the story hinges on the relationship between Raya and her princess counterpart in the Fang country, Namaari, I really wish they spent more time developing it at start in their childhoods like having them actually nurture a proper friendship over days or even weeks instead of a throwaway scene where they scream girlishly about everything they have in common in just over a minute. I do like how most major characters in the film are touched by loss and grief in some way, and for the most part, they were handled sensitively and portrayed convincingly by their voice actors. Now, I know this is small gripe, but I must say I was disappointed that they decided to not do a musical with Raya and the Last Dragon and all we got is a rather underwhelming end credits song which recaps the themes of trust and togetherness again before it trails off with a repetitive grating chant of “Kumandra, Kumandra” and nondescript pop-ish wailings.
The thing is, I grew up watching VHS tapes of Disney films and Disney always meant two things: songs and a Disney-fied adaptation of a specific myth/fairytale. Raya and the Last Dragon have neither. We have so many fairy tales in the region that are unfamiliar to the west. It’s a shame they didn’t try to adapt any, even if they do put a Disney spin on it. Instead, they made up one out of whole cloth. I can’t speak for the other SEA countries but we actually have a naga myth in Malaysia: the Seri Gumum Dragon. And we have a whole smorgasbord of Disney princess candidates in folklore to chose from like Puteri Gunung Ledang, Puteri Zaleha, Tun Fatimah, Puteri Santubong & Puteri Sejinjang, and Puteri Bidasari. I am sure there are countless more from the other ASEAN countries.
The look of this film, in spite of my earlier complaints, is still marvelous to behold. There are plenty of vistas that remind me of actual scenery I’ve seen on boat rides on the Mekong, and the architecture depicted are reminiscent of the many temples I’ve visited in my vacations to Thailand and Laos. And I could tell they really put the work in with the dynamic fight scenes that recalls regional martial arts like silat and arnis (they are quite breathtaking to spectate in real life when done well). I guess Raya is just more of a warrior princess than a song-and-dance Disney princess and I am all for it. I mean, did I mention that we received not one but two kick-ass princesses in Raya? I can already hear the creaks of the masts of ships setting sail. I am also excited to see that Disney is continuing their new tradition in which their princesses undergo satisfying journeys that either ignore romance or relegate it to a side plot.
Am I being overly critical of Raya and the Last Dragon? I don’t know. All I can do is write how I genuinely felt after the credits rolled based on my own experiences as a Southeast Asian person. It’s still quite a pretty and entertaining movie after all is said and done but I don’t think I can blame myself either when I bought into Disney’s own hype and marketing about how seriously they take representation. So in a way, I meant for this review to prepare any Southeast Asian viewer who, like me, is in danger of being disappointed. It’s a fine if forgettable entertainment, so long as you don’t expect to see yourself in it. There is really nothing in the story that makes it uniquely Southeast Asian. You can re-skin the film’s plot with African cultural trappings and it would still work. It’s like that metaphor of a soup that Raya’s father prepared at the start of the film where he uses ingredients from all 5 kingdoms: shrimp paste, lemongrass, bamboo shoots, chilies, and palm sugar to symbolise harmony. Southeast Asians are all familiar with these ingredients, but what is the resultant dish? Is it tom yum? The film doesn’t say. It’s just a generic soup or stew just like how Sisu is a dragon and not a naga. It simply refuses to commit
P.S. Con-baby is VERY cute and hilarious. Can’t deny it.