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Disney’s Raya – Cultural Review

In line with Hari Raya weekend here in Malaysia, here’s my thoughts on Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. I originally intended to do a TV Series Pitch, as many agree it would’ve been better as an episodic format, like Avatar: The Last Airbender.

But I started writing and writing and found it turned into a 5.5k+ words commentary on the cultural consistency of Raya. Which is interesting, because I am all about that story and narrative and usually leave other production elements like cinematography and soundtrack in the footnotes. However, story narrative doesn’t live in a vacuum: some of my favorite narrative scenes are framed by excellent visual composition and a heart-thumping musical theme.

And perhaps it’s because it’s supposedly inspired by my own SEA (Southeast-Asian) culture, which should be familiar to my mind and resonate close to my heart. I found myself having many things to say, on culture of all things. ‘Cause I *really* don’t consider myself a patriotic and culturally-attuned fellow. Perhaps that will make itself clear as you read on HAHAHA please take my words with a bowl of salt.

🚨 Spoiler Alert! 🚨 Everything that follows is spoiler territory, obviously…

Inconsistent Anatopism/Anachronism with SEA Culture

Worldbuiling writers use real-world cultures to inspire their fictional world, but even unintentional correlation will appear and are assumed intentional on the audience’s end (“Yea, I totally planned that deep triple-subtext!”).

But there are varying degrees to adopt and mix-in real-world cultures into a custom world. What strategy does Raya use? Let’s look at examples throughout the movie:

  1. They do mention real-life local fruits like jackfruit, the chain-sword is clearly based on the keris, and the world is obviously based off SEA more than any other region.
  2. We’ve got psuedo-words like binturi and Kumandra, and lots of the cultures, while it doesn’t exist in real life, it’s enough to fool most people to be SEA-like.
  3. Then we’ve got polar opposite climates (deserts and snow) and anatopistic dialogue (“Flaming catapults!”), and animals that simply just aren’t from SEA at all.

It feels like they’re deliberately trying to create a new and different culture only inspired by SEA. But the worldbuilding is too different to be considered Southeast Asian, whilst being too Southeast Asian to be considered something different. There’s just too much stuff from Point 3 that clashes discordantly for the story to brand itself as Point 1. The new non-SEA fictional elements aren’t fleshy/fleshed out enough to stand together with the real-life SEA elements, especially in a short movie. I think it would’ve been so amazing for Raya to just lean completely into SEA culture—or at least to squirm away from whatever clashes with it.

But Raya’s worldbuilding is too different to be considered Southeast Asian, whilst being too Southeast Asian to be considered different.

Raya seems to be unsure of its identity and where it stood. I found this term to be aptly descriptive of Raya: Anatopism (from the Ancient Greek ἀνά, “against,” and τόπος, “place”) is something that is out of its proper place; a geographical misplacement. You may see it referred to anachorism (not to be confused with anachronism). (Source: Anatopism - Wikipedia )

SEA Names, Word Choices, Personality

Names are where it really breaks suspension of disbelief for me.

“Naamari” sounds too African when Fang is Angkor-Wat-inspired (Cambodian). While “Raya” is peak Indo-Malaysian—her father’s name, “Benja”, is very European. Some Kumandran would’ve had to have coined the double U’s in “Druun”, but there’s just no such “uu” spelling/phoenetic(?) anywhere remotely in Asia. Same symptom of the it’s-SEA-culture!-but-not-really! thing. I’m all for have cultural diversity, sure, but there’s no cultural consistency.

I’ve just read on Water Tribe | Avatar Wiki | Fandom that the names of the [Water] Tribes’ citizens often include one or two “K”s and have an “AH” sound (Katara, Hakoda, Sokka, Pakku, Kya, Kanna, Arnook, Korra, Tarrlok, Yakone, Noatak, Eska, Varrick etc.). Notice how none of the names sound Oriental or Western. Even if (and especially when) not coupled with the original culture, this is just one example how some level of consistency and pattern made ATLA’s inspired fictional cultures feel so realistic to their world. This is the gold standard here. Read more at Mantilla & Converse — Patterns in Given Names in the World of Avatar.

And you will be reunited with your family, Noi.

Um, what did you just call her?

Noi. It’s her name. It’s written on her collar. Have none of you ever checked?

Everyone is guilty.

And they think of me as the ruffian.

Talon tribe’s Con-Baby Noi is credited as “Little Noi” in the credits, which I assume is meant to be “Xiao(小/Little) Noi”, which adds so much intimacy. but Tong just calls her by her first name like a Western person (I do believe that at least the first time he references her by her name, he could use some endearing prefix/suffix).

In a similar vein, at one point the script has Tong say “ruffian”. They might as well say “mafia” or “gangster”. And the “Jerky” in “Jackfruit Jerky” is too Western. Just say “dried jackfruit”. Even in Mulan or Aladdin, Mushu and Genie gets the pass only because they’re magical beings, and it’s only ever one character i.e. the exception.

A lot more choice words could’ve been used and transliterated, like Kumandran laksa (in place of the “Kumandran Stew”) or nangka in place of dRieD jAcKfRuiT, or some character facepalming and going “Aduhai! Budak ‘ni.” Cultural idioms/proverbs like nasi sudah menjadi bubur—even when said aloud in directly-translated English, “[the] rice already turned into porridge”—is way better and more appropriate than if someone were to say, “no use crying over spilt milk”. These are some examples from one Malaysian, but I’m sure Disney can afford a team of SEA culture experts to seize these opportunities plenty.

Anatopistic Sisu

The biggest culprit of language is Sisu. Sisu’s personality is just too modern Western (temporally and culturally) for a show set in the traditional East. She uses terms like “group projects”, “nightlights”, “Captain Pop-and-Lock”… especially for a creature of the culture, Sisu of all characters must be kept local.

But what about Mushu from Mulan, or the Genie from Aladdin? They’re also comedic relief characters whose premise are based on the culture, but their personality is way different.” Well, firstly, Mushu and Genie are HILARIOUS and charismatic. And I also think the writers were trying to replicate these iconic characters, but Sisu’s comedic dialogue choices just fall flat (“I’m not like… the bEsT dragon.”) and charisma is really important for holding suspension of disbelief.

It also does help that you had characters like the Matchmaker & the Emperor, or the Sultan & Jafar (basically the rest of the cast) who are VERY much stereotypical products of the culture, and they set the cultural norm/tone of the film’s setting, keeping the magical anachronistic characters as the one exception to the very consistently established rule. In Raya, no one’s characterization really screams “I’m a Southeast Asian!“.

It also helped that culture plays a pivotal role in the Aladdin and Mulan’s theme. The Matchmaker and Jafar, for example, are literal embodiments of the antagonistic forces that dictate the worth of people extrinsically, instead of who they really are intrinsically. And when characters like Mushu and Genie struggle with the exact same theme of extrinsic/intrinsic value, it makes them feel part of the same world. They could’ve leaned more on the idea of unity, a very SEA-centric value, in Sisu’s characterization.

And finally, in the same vein, Sisu carries her story’s worldbuilding much more than Mulan or Aladdin. The mystical elements in Mulan and Aladdin are quite simple and straightforward and already established since they don’t stray too far from the real world—especially when compared to the depth of world history and even sub-cultures found in Raya. This is compounded with the inconsistent SEA-but-not-really worldbuilding strategy. Dynasty-era China and psuedo-Agrabah are quite familiar settings. But in Raya, dragons are supposed to be the core of this new world, and Sisu is the only dragon we really see (and hear!) but we’re not quite sure whether the dragons are Southeast Asian, and by extension, whether the world is Southeast Asian.

From Aang (from Avatar: The Last Airbender) alone, we understand so much of the pacifistic and virtuous values of the Air Nation as a whole, from this one person who is supposed to be the champion of its values. Imagine—Aang has an American personality like Sisu. We’d assume the entire Air Nation (and by extension, 1/4 of the Avatar world) is basic American. How much more so the dragons, which set the mood and tone all of Kumandra?

SEA Animals

Let’s talk about the creatures too. In real life, “Tuk-tuk” is a name for an auto rickshaw, popularized by Thailand and spread throughout the world! True, Raya’s Tuk-Tuk does serve as her transport vehicle (a very cool design, no dispute) but Tuk-Tuk is a cross of the Armadillidiidae (native to Europe) and Armadillo - Wikipedia (South America), according to its Disney Wiki entry. Yes, they want to make Tuk-Tuk roll like a rickshaw’s wheel… but is it worth it?

Fang’s cat-tigers (which are named “Serlot”. Not very cultural) are based on Caracals (Central Asia at best)—at least let them have a Malayan Tiger’s stripes! Tail’s “Toot n’ Boom” beetle could be based on the Brown marmorated stink bug (Northern Asia), and get this—they were originally designed as farting gophers (gophers are native to North America). And I quote, “No one had one note and all of a sudden, here you have these characters whose main contribution to the movie is that they fart.” KENAPE INI??

At least the “Ongi” monkeys (half-orangutan-half-catfish, apparently) from Talon are distinctly Southeast Asian. They achieved Talon’s entire culture quite authentically, and that’s why Talon just pops.

Misc. SEA things

Even just funny Asian things like our easily swayed inclinations to “free gifts”, or certain characters having random silly superstitions about not eating certain types of meat or X catastrophe will happen. Even though it’s from China-Chinese, look at how The Wish Dragon handles weaving culture and story.

Early on, Young Raya talks about fighting with crossbows and flaming catapults. The former, perhaps, but I don’t think the latter was ever used in Southeast Asian warfare. That took me way out.

The voices could’ve had stronger accents too. This was another layer of dissonance for me, I couldn’t match the Southeast Asian I’m attuned to and am supposed to be hearing, versus the accents I was actually hearing. I am told that I myself don’t have a strong local accent, and that I speak Chinese/Malay with a noticeable degree of a [western] accent. I wouldn’t put myself forward to voice SEA-centric characters in a heavy SEA-inspired world. It’s like—it’s like getting these American accents to voice act in an animated Black Panther. It’s wrong to the Africans, it’s wrong to the SEA’ns.

Though—there are cases like in Mulan and HTTYD where the main cast don’t have cultural accents. But some people have distinctly cultural accents, like the Emperor & Chi-Fu, and all the adults in Dragons—but it’s played to greater effect, because these adults represent the cultural setting. At least the tribe elders in Raya could’ve had some accent.

Then tiny details that should be too small to matter, from hairstyles to architecture… just don’t quite do it. They stick out all the more, feeling… inconsistent.

And it feels intentionally globalized, when a story like this functions better if localized. Which is a shame, because other productions like Over the Moon prove that it is possible to satisfyingly blend traditional cultures with otherworldly elements, even in an English language medium.

SEA Tribes

So let’s get the subcultures down:

  • Heart is Indo-Malaysia because “Raya”
  • Fang is Cambodia because Angkor Wat
  • (Talon’s perfect for what it is, nothing much to say here)
  • and then Viking/Japan and Africa.

And it’s no surprise that the two non-tropical tribes got the least screen time and least focus. They’re the weakest in terms of feeling distinctly SEA, to me. Because, imagine if we could allocate an entire 30-minute episode equally for each tribe/subculture.

I know Tail is supposed to represent the hotter regions/climates, but given 30 minutes, movie!Tail would end up as African to me. We don’t have sprawling sand deserts. We’re hot-and-humid, not hot-and-dry. I don’t think we’re huge on elaborate stronghold booby-traps either.

And in 30 minutes, Spine would remain Scandavanian-inspired from How to Train Your Dragon, if they had bamboo. The bamboo and the lack of a Scandavanian accent are the only distinction. Spine are characterized by being big in size (SEA people are genetically smaller on average) and they have snow. We don’t have snow, so much so that literally every kid I know wish to travel to a country where they can experience snow.

SEA-Authentic Tail

Zoom into the desert region of Kumandra and a TAIL MERCENARY sharpening a sharp blade…

First: Tail. A sweltering desert with sneaky mercenaries who fight dirty.

The closest thing that SEA has to a desert is Bao Trang, or the White Sand Dunes, in Vietnam. It has a huge lake. But this is the exception to the rule. Let’s not do sand deserts.

Instead, for inspiration for a Southeast-Asian Tail, Southeast Asia frequently goes through spells of drought. Tail could just have perpetual drought (perhaps because of malicious crime?), and could look like the pictures here: Worst Drought in Decades Disrupts Life in Southeast Asia’s Mekong Region.

|400 — Credit: RUNGROJ YONGRIT / EPA

Now that’s a distinctly Southeast Asian wasteland. There may not be desert-sand, but the cracks in the ground shows parched forest-soil. The dead tree stumps. Even just the white sky feels more *right* than the saturated blue in the movie. Movie!Tail just looked too African to me.

|400 Credit: Mangrove rehabilitation in South East Asia - National Parks Board (NParks)

And what if, Tail used to be a healthy mangrove swamp with flowing rivers — but then, because all the rivers dried up, it left behind the drought wasteland in the previous picture?

A large (ex-)mangrove swamp biome seems very in line with Tail in the final movie too, I can imagine a booby-trapped swamp stronghold, instead of a desert one!

SEA-Authentic Spine

On the snow-covered mountains of Spine, we see an army of LARGE BARBARIANS.

Third: Spine. A frigid, bamboo forest guarded by exceedingly large warriors and their giant axes.

With the snow in Spine, I became 100% certain that the show wasn’t trying to be Southeast Asian. Like with their cast that have Northeast Asian heritage, the snowy bamboo forest was confused to be Southeast Asian when it’s really China/Korea/Japan. And they could’ve totally expanded the worldbuilding to encompass the whole of East Asia — but no, the Spine tribespeople have dark skin. In a cold, dark, snowy climate, where they should be lighter-skinned.

Even the Water Tribe in Avatar: The Last Airbender needed to move away from its East Asian cultures of the other three tribes to use Inuit/Native American cultures, because East Asia simply does not have that kind specific kind of biome to realistically tie in Asian culture with freezing climates, especially since the Water Tribes are literally the North and South Pole, the coldest you can go. You can’t make a culture that wants the hot and dry African/Middle-Eastern culture, clothing and lifestyle, with an Antarctica climate and environment. It’s just not realistic.

To stick with SEA, you could change Spine to look more like Shang-Chi’s bamboo forest, but with a cooler bluish tint:

Credit: Shang-Chi: The Bamboo Forest | Computer Graphics World

Let them be lighter-skinned. There could still be patches of snow, but not everywhere.

Bamboo biomes are generally quite flat and not mountainous. We could just call it as a bamboo forest on a plain on a mountain. I won’t comment too much on the mountain aspect, because Spine

And it would add depth to have people from Spine say, “We used to have chili from Tail to make Kumandra Stew, we miss the spiciness that helped to warm us in the cold. Not anymore since the Druun.” There’s so much to build on!

We also don’t really use giant axes. And Google has just informed me that nobody uses giant axes to cut bamboo (they use saws/shears, because it’s that sturdy) so it doesn’t make too much sense for Spine to main axes. Heavy swings get stuck on bamboo. Spine’s choice of weaponry should be natural product of its environment… literally? What about bamboo spears?

Rain and Floods

Kumandra’s Lack of Rain

So here in Malaysia, the bright/hot/draught season just gave way to gloomy/windy/wet rainy season. Roads/rivers flooding and soft-earth landslides and just being soaked in weighty downpour. Heavy tropical showers are just as distinctly Southeast Asian as the Hot-Humid climate.

And it just hit me: Raya never shows this side of the tropical climate, in any of the Tribes at any part of the story. Though, then again, it doesn’t truly explore the hot-but-humid-not-dry plains, going through the dense rainforests—by virtue of clothing, flora/fauna, or the practices.

This is consciously chalked down to the dragons disappearing and that meant that the rains/rivers would be held back, and with the lack of water, the Druun could wreck havoc. So if the Druun are to have their reign, we can’t have our rain.

But… Fang had a whole waterfall. It dried up when Sisu is killed by the arrow, but it presumably was flowing even before Sisu was brought back. Now you could argue that Sisu had disappeared but not yet died, but if we can have waterfalls, why not have tropical rains? Perhaps global rain would make the Druun so much less of a threat, since we established water to be such a powerful Kryptonite. But we can lean into this and twist a story out of it!

So it’s established that that the Druun are weak to water. And that since the dragons disappeared and the Dragon Gem got shattered, the rivers started drying up. But Fang’s rivers are flowing as strongly as ever, if not stronger than before. So, what if the rivers didn’t dry up because of magic, but literally because of human distrust and discord? What if… Fang redirected the waters from the other tribes to its own land? OH HO HO that’s such a good plot element. Ugh.

Stealing Water

Let’s tweak the story:

  • After the Gem gets divided, it doesn’t really matter if the story needs the waters to start to dry up or it’s already been drying. The point is, everyone already knows that water wards off the Druun.
  • Fang immediately starts diverting rivers and constructing channels/pumps. Lol what if we had magic seeds that grows into plants that somehow causes the air around it to whatever, and attracts clouds (cloud seeding LOL).
  • Fang becomes really immune to the Druun. Their climate turns into one that rains so often and so heavy, and the water cycle is just trapped in their region.
  • Clashing between tribes gets bad to the point that they’re just cutting off water supply to other tribes—even when it doesn’t benefit them! Poisoning water sources. Spilling water into contaminated land. And only pure water (fit for drinking and sustaining life) can ward off the Druun. Thirst and sickness weakens and kills whoever isn’t petrified by the Druun, especially in Heart and Tail.
  • The other Tribes don’t have a clue what’s going on, but they note that over the years, the water levels are going down, and the Druun are getting more powerful in their land. Just as Fang’s water levels go up.
  • This also plays into Raya: she starts the story by visiting hundreds of rivers across all the land, to find the one river that would summon Sisu. We could explain the countless failed attempts by having the prophecy/instruction manual state that Sisu can only be summoned at a river of pure water. Everyone’s water is at least slightly contaminated. Even Fang’s waters, their contamination of other waters had led back into their own. That’s why it took her so long to track down the one last pure river in uninhabited Tail.
  • However, too much water is also a real problem in Southeast Asia. Fang starts overloading with water: the crops fail because the farmland floods; landslides cause property damage; commerce is disrupted when it there’s hujan lebat. Some children have literally never seen the sun, ‘cause it’s all dark rainclouds. Fang, though safe from the Druun, are royally suffering. These problems slowly reveal throughout the story, from the perspectives of different Fang citizens.

In light of all the Fang water-stealing conspiracy, a 6-year timespan is too short for a such a drastic change in the world. We can chalk it up to the shattered Dragon Gem that literally amplifies the effects of a divided world. But such global and slow-burn sequence of events need time to spiral out of control and to form a new era of deep culture and beliefs.

Avatar: The Last Airbender had 100-years for the Fire Nation to methodically stamp their mark on the world, and to fully develop the consequences of Aang’s flaw of running away when the world needed him the most. People could have lived a full life without an Avatar in the picture. And that is what precisely sets the stage for Aang: these peoples’ kids, whose parents had hoped for the Avatar’s return, and never got it. You get powers that really go unchecked (the Fire Nation, Dai Li) and such interesting characters like people taking justice into their own vigilante hands (Jet, Hama). Ugh ATLA.

But Raya and Naamari were the cause of the Gem breaking. Without a cryo-chamber moment, even as prodigies they’d have to be at least 12 to be somewhat competent enough in combat for Raya to best her Father, right before the shattered Gem betrayal. And then they can’t be older than 30 in the present-day adventure, because they’d be rather old. Either ways, I think at least 15-20 years’ space between the shattered Gem betrayal and the audience’s present-day story adventure, would strike a balance. Though it’s still not enough breathing space for a water conspiracy to mar Kumandra.

We could say that Fang had been stealing water for centuries past (but the Druun were banished when the dragons disappeared? Maybe they did this in preemptively/in precaution if they came back), and the other nations already started feeling the ill effects, which played into the tensions during Chief Benja’s time. But originally, early on Chief Benja says that the other tribes think that Heart prospered much more than the others because they held the Gem, if not, the other tribes would be bothering Fang instead.

Wicked Heart

Which leads to another tweak. What if. Instead of the stereotypical ruthless Fang… it’s actually Heart that has been doing the water diverting and poisoning and prospering off it? This is a Dai Li moment. After all, all have fallen short and the heart is deceitful above all else. Yes, this rewrite would mean that Chief Benja, Raya’s father, is just another player in this game of life. Fang is ruthless, yes, but Heart is insatiably wicked.

So, new rewrite:

  • For centuries since the dragons disappeared, Heart had been diverting waters from the different lands into its own. That’s why it’s been such a protected and healthy rainforest.
    • Maybe they had been diverting waters for centuries before that. But they continued the practice even after the Druun were banished, maybe because
  1. There were still some Druun left, it could’ve petrified the Heart chief’s family or something
  2. The Druun are gone, but as a precaution if they came back
  3. Regardless of the Druun, the waters brought life and prosperity to Heart.
    • Furthermore, Heart keeping the Gem helped to brand their prosperity as a result of the tribe possessing the Gem, while covering up their nefarious water-stealing practices.
  • Chief Benja was just another chief-in-line to continue the practice. We keep the painting of Heart to be so noble and pacifist and championing unity of One-Kumandra—especially in contrast with the evil, untrustworthy, openly-treasonous Fang.
  • In Episode 1, Chief Benja calls all the Tribes together for a meal. On the bridge, they accuse Heart of hogging the Gem, but also a one-off statement is made about the drying rivers. We the audience don’t feel any weight to any of these accusations, as they’re just jealous.
  • The story goes on as usual. Along with the audience, Raya still believes that Fang is 100% in the wrong for the world falling apart. She feels 100% justified in stealing the gem pieces to save her father and the world.
  • Later, as they’re leaving Talon with all the pieces save for Fang’s, Raya states that Fang’s gem piece is impossible to obtain, as their military and security is just too tight.
  • In a shocking twist: Raya slips away from the gang in the night as they’re traveling by Heart, with the four gem pieces. All five gem pieces are required to restore all Kumandra, but using up four gem pieces is just enough to revitalize Heart, the poor victim. Going to Fang is a doomed suicide mission anyways, and Raya really doesn’t care about the other tribes. She can argue with her animal friend Tuk-Tuk to externalize her beliefs to the audience.
    • The gang belatedly realises what she’s going to do, and are indignant. They sail down to Heart.
  • Raya excitedly first revives her father so he can witness the restoration of the entire tribe. Chief Benja comes back to life. They reunite, happy happy, but Benja notes that Raya only has four pieces and realizes Raya’s plan.
  • Benja confesses his war crimes and reveals Heart’s dark history of water stealing. Raya is disgusted, and feels personally betrayed by her father after victimizing Heart before the other tribes. But it’s noted that Raya is guilty of the sin that runs in the family: she, too, had betrayed her gang by taking the gem pieces for her own tribe.
  • Benja regrets his decisions thus far, and wants to set things right by making a treaty with Fang as the original chief of Heart—then all the Gems can be obtained.
  • Meanwhile, Raya is sunk too deep into cynicism. She scoffs, “Ha! Dad, if you can get a Fang to unite together with the other tribes, then we talk. But if my own tribe, my own father, has always been this deceptive and selfish, then the world might as well be—I might as well be. At least I’ll save my tribe in the process.”
  • So they fight it out on the bridge. It’s a callback, the Gem (pieces) in the center, and Benja preventing Raya from passing him to get it. Benja notes that in his time as chief, Raya was the only one he had to fight in protecting the Gem. It’s a tragic fight.
  • The gang arrives (without Sisu, we’ll get to that later, but she’s too powerful to be here now). They note that Benja is alive, and Benja recognizes Tong as Spine’s chief. The gang knows what Raya is trying to do, and it becomes a everyone-for-themselves swordfight.
    • All of them are expert combatants, except for Little Noi (and the monkeys), who sneakily steals a gem piece, only for someone else to snatch it back and forth. Benja definitely dominates here in a group setting, and is more careful. And of course, Boun doesn’t fight, so maybe Tail’s gem piece is mainly being held by Benja.
    • But the point is: after all the bonding so far, the gang had all devolved back to the first time every tribe was snatching up the gem pieces when it was first broken.
  • Raya knows she can’t fight them all, so she takes Heart’s gem piece and dives off the bridge. Benja looks on, like he did many years ago when he sacrificed himself for her.
  • The gang to go on their way with their own gem piece… but Boun and Little Noi have no one to go back to. Benja and Tong’s heartstrings get tugged. Benja rallies the gang to go to Fang. Like Raya scoffed, if they can somehow get Fang’s cooperation (through Benja’s revival), then Raya has no reason not to restore all Kumandra.

So in this rewrite, Raya goes rogue, not Naamari. Benja organizes a three-way meeting between the gang, Naamari, and Raya. Raya, fully leaning into the willingness to betray, is instead the one who springs up the surprise crossbow. Naamari intervenes out of distrust, and this gets Sisu killed.

Waters fail, the Druun rise. Benja gets petrified again but this time from saving Naamari. Raya causes Virana to get petrified while Raya scrambles for the gem pieces to revive Benja. She gets the four gem pieces as she did before, but the four-gems don’t work because Sisu is dead. This petrification is permanent. Their parents are gone. So, they fight it out like they did in the original.

UGH I love rewriting

Cooler Gem Weapons

When one of the main gang simply holds out a gem piece to ward off a Druun: it’s kind of a lame action. It’s not very visual, nor shows off fantastical physical feats, or at least some effort on the character’s part to effectively wield the gem stones.

It would be WAY cooler if every tribe’s gem piece should be incorporated uniquely into tribe-centric artifacts. Think of it exactly like the containers for Marvel’s Avenger’s Infinity Stones (the Tesserect for the Space Stone, the Aether for the Reality Stone, etc.), or like Pirate of the Caribbean’s At World’s End’s Piece of Eight (actual items like a playing card, which represented and identified each of the Pirate Lords)! The gem piece would enchant the weapon (with a shimmer animation when it’s attached) and make it super effective against the Druun. Plus, it’s extra opportunity to showcase SEA culture.

  • Chief Benja’s gem-embedded chain-whip-sword kris/keris/kalis for Heart
  • Naamari’s dragon pendant for Fang, embedded on top of Virana’s (Naamari’s mom) scepter (perhaps like a trishula?) Whose tip can be unattached and become a tekpi/chabang?
  • I was today years old when I learnt the karambit is a SEA thing. It’s literally a Talon. Perfect for close-quarters swindling thieves.
  • A gem-tipped bamboo spear for Spine, magically unbreakable—bamboo is literally used in sillat tongkat/toya/lembing silat
  • Tail’s the most underdeveloped story-wise, so they could have anything. But look at this beautiful kujang. Though if Tail’s main industry were to be agriculture, the celurit/sabit is another culturally-beautiful weapon/tool.

Then, as each member of the gang use a Gem Piece to fight off the Druun, they can actually incorporate expert combat skills and unique fighting styles.

I had a really fun time reading through Weapons of pencak silat - Wikipedia. My culture is so colorful.

Source: What is Pencak Silat | Pencak Silat Anak Harimau

Conclusive thoughts

Cultural authenticity is clearly not a core value enforced during the production. I say this not as a complaint, as otherworldy stories are supposed to be unfamiliar and curious—but as an observation that story production heads consciously decided to dip their toes in both sides of the fence and never commit to one.

I don’t attribute all this to COVID lockdown preventing larger theatre profit-per-viewer rates because it was set to release in 2020 and it’s clear production was following this direction from the very start, which could be from years back. My gander is that this is the product of two factors:

One: (executives may think) international audiences have no interest to care for a Southeast Asian story (SEA is such a small market for an international Disney movie); let alone Disney+ was ironically not yet available/accessible in many countries in Southeast Asia at the time. So to attract more viewership, they mold it to be more relatable (“Westerners won’t know what laksa is, just call it stew!”), which means to expand the cultural umbrella (globalization and generalization).

And the second, more egregious—but less conniving—reason could be that everyone in production just comes from a Western context. Look at Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) - Full Cast & Crew - IMDb. The directors, writers, cast, crew. Most of them don’t have a Southeast Asian heritage. The few who do, have basically lived in white America all their lives, and are more American than Southeast Asian. Actually, practically all these people would say that their primary identity is American. And I would wager that for the overwhelming majority of the production team.

Nobody from production really lived in Southeast Asia. These people’s culture weren’t shaped by 2-hour flooded traffic jams or surveying fabrics and unhealthy snacks in crowded night street markets.

It’s just that they marketed and branded this movie’s identity, even in-universe, as Southeast Asian. But then they show things that are not characteristically Southeast Asian, and then label it as Southeast Asian to the world. Not that a Western chef can’t make an amazing Eastern dish (peep: ATLA); but that the dish is branded as “Southeast Asian” on the menu, while the dish is basically a sloppy Joe burger.

I get why cultural authenticity is so important now. ‘Cause it’s almost as if they’re saying (even if not on purpose), “Hey, this is what your culture looks like to us, this is how the rest of world will perceive it. If your life doesn’t look like this, maybe you’re not doing it right. Maybe you’re invalid to associate with the Southeast Asian identity.”

I’ve never paid a second thought to the cultural aspect of a story. They were always a means to an end, malleable to whatever the story needs it to be. But now I understand that story breathes through culture. And that nailing the culture aspect can beautifully define the physical shape of story.

It’s just like caring enough to learn how to speak someone’s native language fluently, and instead of talking into their ears, you get to speak directly with their heart.