For this review, I have two wonderful animated features, one is Raya and the Last Dragon, set in Southeast Asia; and the other is the Oscar-nominated Wolfwalkers. There’s also the ‘final course’ of The Trip film series, a talky mockumentary I’ve avidly followed since 2010.
Raya and the Last Dragon (Disney+) – I’ll be the first to admit that when I first heard about Raya, I thought it would just be a Mulan or Moana retread, but set in Southeast Asia, and that the dragon Sisu would be a variation on Mushu or the Genie. I was happy to see the Filipino weaponry elements, but it was clear that they were aiming for an amalgam of ASEAN cultures and the movie would be set in a fictitious kingdom. So I was eager to watch Raya, but wasn’t expecting all that much. Happily, I can say that it’s truly an uplifting film, with an imaginative narrative and set of characters, and that we can all say that a new Disney Princess is born, and her name is Raya.
I’m not going to dwell on the storyline, so no spoilers here. Just look out for the con-baby, and the one-eyed bandit king. I won’t be surprised if they’ll eventually get their own spin-off cartoons. Thematically, there is the expected quest, the subject of family, devotion and duty; but I loved how the film also centers on factionalism – how so much more can be accomplished when we unite despite our differences. At a time when Asian-Americans are being victimized by hate crimes and incidents, it’s a strong and potent lesson. The photorealistic animation is impressive, and the meshing of different ASEAN cultures is tastefully achieved. And you’ll love how the dragon is a female dragon, a perfect Women’s History Month release.
Wolfwalkers (Apple Original, AppleTV+) – Nominated for Best Animated Feature in the upcoming Academy Awards, Wolfwalkers may lose out to Soul in taking home Oscar; but I’d rate it my strong second and most likely to steal, over the other nominees – Onward, Over the Moon, and Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon. Set in 17th century Ireland, the premise of the film dwells in the concept of the Wolfwalkers, shape-shifting fantastical creature of the forest. Human by day, they transform into wolves while their human form are asleep. Touching on the historical fact of British rule over Ireland, the film deftly talks about towns encroaching on forest land, and how friendship can trump over the fear of being different or the unknown. But what’s great, is how these are addressed in the context of a warm-hearted fairy tale.
At the center of the story are two independent young girls. There’s Robyn, a transplanted English girl who has accompanied her father, a wolf hunter by reputation; and there’s Mebh, a Wolfwalker who lives in the forest with her mother, and is always ready to ‘steal’ and eat ‘town tasties’. It’s a match made in some alternate Heaven, as you immediately warm to the two, despite their stark differences. And what’s lovely here is the gradual awakening and realization of their shared values and dispositions. Sean Bean, voicing Bill Goodfellow, the father of Robyn, would be the best known of the cast: but don’t let that discourage you from seeking this out, as there’s great Old School animation, and a truly engrossing narrative, with unexpected twists and turns.
The Trip to Greece (Video On Demand) – Back in 2010, when The Trip first came out, it was a meta-concept, directed by Michael Winterbottom, putting two actual friends, actor Steve Coogan & comedian Rob Brydon on a road trip to the best eateries found in the Lake District of Northern England. Filmed as a mockumentary, interspersed with cooking eating and travel footage, the two would verbally joust, pick on each other, tease and make fun, and it felt so natural, it was a friendship many of us could relate to. Using the same formula, there was a Trip to Italy, followed by Trip to Spain, and now, in what’s promised to be the ‘last course’, one to Greece.
The premise is they’re following the footsteps of Odysseus, from Troy to Ithaca. And as per formula, the two show off their impressions, ruminate about middle age and their respective careers, and generally entertain us in a witty manner, while also being ready to go ‘babaw’. Early on in the film, Brydon bursts out with an acapella rendition of Grease, and of course, Coogan insists he’s being stupid for choosing that song just because they’re in Greece. When Brydon asks Coogan what he’s proudest of in his life, Coogan quickly replies his 7 BAFTA’s, to which Brydon says he’s proudest of his children. Coogan than teases Brydon, saying that’s his answer because he has no BAFTA’s – to which Brydon cooly replies ‘But you do have children.’ It’s that kind of verbal jousting that’s so entertaining.