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Review: Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon Warns Against Isolationism

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Review: Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon Warns Against Isolationism
Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney Animation’s first original effort in over four years. That last one — before two sequels, 2019’s billion-dollar-plus Frozen II, and Ralph Breaks the Internet the year prior — was Moana, centred on a young girl from the Pacific Islands. Moana was Disney’s first “princess” from that region, and her appearance in Ralph Breaks the Internet’s memorable “Disney Princesses” scene reiterated that diversity, given she was one of a handful (next to Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Tiana) who wasn’t a white character. With Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney continues down the Moana route. Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), is Disney’s first princess from Southeast Asia — and that ushers Disney into a world of new cultures.
For the most part, that works wonderfully. Raya and the Last Dragon directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6 and Moana co-director) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) borrow and blend visual elements from several Southeast Asian cultures, creating a world that’s beautifully realised, feels lived in, and features some gorgeous landscapes. And there are some nice cultural touches, be it a soup bowl made up of ingredients found across Southeast Asia (that also acts as a metaphor) or something as small as people taking off their footwear before they step into a hallowed place. It’s also vast in scope, with the fantastical world of Raya and the Last Dragon made up of kingdoms that look different from each other — and represent the sheer diversity that can be found in the region. Its cast is also largely of Asian descent, who have Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and Hong Kongese heritage.And because of the confluence of cultures, Raya and the Last Dragon’s art and music (by composer James Newton Howard) feel like they carry a South Asian feel to them as well. It’s too bad then that Disney isn’t bringing the film to streaming in India. Raya and the Last Dragon really ought to have been dubbed into Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu and released simultaneously on Disney+ Hotstar, given the pandemic. As it stands, it’s available in cinemas only in India, even as it’s out on Disney+ Premier Access in select markets.

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For those who can watch it, they will find an entertaining romp infused with some important messaging. On a structural level the new Disney movie feels like a heist film. And from a plot standpoint it comes across as a video game at times. As for the narrative, Raya and the Last Dragon writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) — who developed a script based on a story that had eight contributors — touch upon values of trust, forgiveness, and unity during the film’s 95-minute runtime. One of them is repeated one too many times though, that too through dialogue, almost as if the writers don’t trust their (largely) young audience to follow along. That’s a shame because it’s quite trustworthy of them elsewhere.

The messaging is handled better when it comes to that titular dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), through whom it dismantles that the archetype big-hero trope, that it takes the best of them all to stop the greatest threats. Early into Raya and the Last Dragon, Sisu reveals that she’s “not, like, the best dragon”. But what mattered in a pivotal moment, as she adds deep into the film, is that she trusted the people around her, and they trusted her. Of course, the Disney movie’s real magic is Awkwafina herself. She proves to be an (obvious) genius bit of casting, bringing more to a voice-only role than I’ve noticed in years. It’s not that she’s supplied with terrific lines, but rather it’s the delivery choices she opts for that make her unusual dragon character such a delight to witness.

Raya and the Last Dragon opens with a spritzy introduction to the world of Kumandra — its map looks like a dragon-shaped river is cutting through it — a vast, serene and wonderful kingdom filled with humans and dragons. But after a mindless plague known as the Drunn swept through the land and turned everyone into stone, the dragons made a desperate last stand to wipe their scourge with the help of a Dragon Gem (a MacGuffin, naturally). It worked, and the humans came back, but the dragons didn’t — save for Sisu who hasn’t been seen since. Scared for the future, people turned on each other, fighting over the Dragon Gem, and dividing Kumandra into five parts named for the dragon shape they live next to: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail.

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Kelly Marie Tran as Raya, Daniel Dae Kim as Benja in Raya and the Last Dragon
Photo Credit: Disney

Five hundred years have passed, and those discords have sown deeper than ever, but Raya’s father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of Heart — the keeper of the Dragon Gem, and everyone’s envy — believes they can be reunited into Kumandra again. To that end, he’s invited people from all the other regions. But the five factions turn on each other (expectedly), and fight over the Dragon Gem, which breaks into five pieces. The protection spell is seemingly broken as the Drunn return, turning everyone into stone again. Raya escapes, and sets out on a six-year journey to find Sisu, the last dragon, with the help of her trusted steed Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) — a mix between an armadillo and a pill bug, but massive — who, as you can tell, is named after the rickshaw, or tuk-tuk as it’s called in parts of Southeast Asia.

That’s a lot of exposition. The Raya and the Last Dragon directors do their best to be clever about it, deploying touches of self-awareness or trying to present it organically, but it is what it is. As for the premise, you can draw some obvious comparisons, including two of the biggest films of all time in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (from Disney’s sister studio Marvel). In both Avengers and Raya and the Last Dragon, monsters have “killed” many but they can be brought back, if the heroes can collect a bunch of gem pieces. There are parallels to Avatar: The Last Airbender too, while the visuals pay homage to everything from Mad Max: Fury Road, Indiana Jones, and Frozen.

These varying landscapes are presented in a stylish and epic fashion, featuring a hostile desert, giant sun-baked palace, a desolate icy tundra, and a night market that hints at a darker underbelly — all of which bring to mind different parts of Southeast Asia. The world of Raya and the Last Dragon seems ripe to become a franchise (thanks to the different worlds), more so given how it proceeds.

As Raya traverses the five lands of Kumandra, she comes across a motley of zany characters that end up joining her cause one way or another, assembling an accidental fellowship of sorts. There’s the boy wonder chef and ship captain Boun (newcomer Isaac Wang), warrior giant with a heart of gold Tong (Benedict Wong, from Doctor Strange), and baby con artist Noi (Thalia Tran, from 2019’s Little) and her three monkey friends that are a real handful. And of course, there’s the water dragon Sisu, who turns out to be a wacky teenager herself, more prone to cracking jokes than doing dragon-y things. Raya and the Last Dragon knows that its ensemble doesn’t make much sense, but it fully owns it, leading to plenty of laughs in the process. But crucially, all their lives have been deeply impacted by the Druun.

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raya and the last dragon sisu raya and the last dragon sisu

Awkwafina as Sisu, Kelly Marie Tran as Raya in Raya and the Last Dragon
Photo Credit: Disney

That also includes Raya’s former frenemy Namaari (Gemma Chan, from Captain Marvel) of Fang. Like Raya, she too is after the Dragon Gem pieces — and the closest Raya and the Last Dragon has to an antagonist, what with the Druun being a faceless purple-and-black-coloured smoke cloud.

But the real villain in the new Disney movie are the humans themselves. Or rather, their fears, doubts, and weaknesses. As Sisu states in a dialogue, the Drunn are after all a plague born of human discord. Raya’s father preaches the important of unity, which is ever timelier in a world where isolationism is the new normal, where people make little effort to understand each other, and nearly every country seems to be practising an “us first” policy. The film communicates that sometimes, it’s up to the next generation to fix the world. That’s a resonant message given how young activists today are viciously attacked, jailed, or even killed globally. And to heal wounds and to bridge those insular chasms, at times, you must take the first step — and trust that others will follow.

Raya and the Last Dragon is out March 5 in cinemas worldwide. It’s also available on Disney+ with Premier Access in select markets.

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Microsoft Partners With Inworld to Bring AI Game Development Tools to Xbox

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Microsoft Partners With Inworld to Bring AI Game Development Tools to Xbox


Microsoft is teaming up with Inworld AI to create game development tools for Xbox, enabling developers to create characters, generate entire scripts and quests, and more. The multi-year deal brings an AI design copilot and an AI character runtime engine to the forefront, both of them being totally optional to use and to varying degrees. Of course, the use of AI in art has been criticised by many for simply lacking originality, in addition to running the risk of fewer jobs for artists — a growing fear among many considering the alarming number of layoffs seen at game studios this year in an attempt to cut costs.

“At Xbox, we believe that with better tools, creators can make even more extraordinary games,” Haiyan Zhang, GM, Xbox Gaming AI, said in a blog post. “This partnership will bring together: Inworld’s expertise in working with generative AI models for character development, Microsoft’s cutting-edge cloud-based AI solutions including Azure OpenAI Service, Microsoft Research’s technical insights into the future of play, and Team Xbox’s strengths in revolutionizing accessible and responsible creator tools for all developers.”

The aforementioned AI design copilot is a toolset that will help game designers turn prompts into scripts and dialogue trees. In contrast, the character runtime will enable dynamically generated plot beats and quests. We’ve already seen heavy AI integration in games by way of procedural generation — a more recent example being the 1000+ planets in Starfield. Not to mention, enemy AI has been around for way longer.

Inworld made headlines in August when it launched a modded story mode for Grand Theft Auto V, Sentient Streets, in which players had to investigate the rise of a bizarre AI-worshipping cult — a segment loaded with characters that spoke in AI-generated dialogue, on the fly. The mod was later taken down by publisher Take-Two, leaving a permanent strike on the creator Bloc’s YouTube channel. As per The Verge, Inworld’s AI technology can also be used for narration in top-down RPGs to warn players about any events awaiting off-screen and respond to questions like we’ve seen in the past year with AI chatbots like ChatGPT and Bing Chat. Microsoft has also been heavily banking on artificial intelligence, having made a $10 billion (about Rs. 83,254 crore) investment in OpenAI. The company has also integrated AI tools into its popular suite of services and also added an AI copilot to Windows.

Despite being a Microsoft-affiliated AI toolset, it would be interesting to see whether titles using them will be allowed to thrive on other platforms. In July, Valve claimed that it would be cracking down on games that included AI-generated assets if the developer didn’t own the copyright to the piece of art. For the uninitiated, when you insert a prompt to create something in AI, the software simply repurposes existing assets found online and mushes them together — basically stealing from other artists and writers without appropriate commercial licenses. Infringing them would lead to the game not being distributed on Steam, forcing the developers to seek proper licenses for the asset by reaching out to the AI companies involved. It’s unclear how Microsoft’s partnership will play out — as long as AI content is being used as a catalyst to innovate and create something new, it should be fine.


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BSNL Offers Free 4G SIM Upgrade: Here’s How to Get It

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BSNL Offers Free 4G SIM Upgrade: Here’s How to Get It


BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) is a state-owned telecommunication company in India. Earlier this year in May, the government said that the firm started rolling out 4G services in the country. By December, the networks were said to be upgraded to 5G. However, at the India Mobile Congress, BSNL chairman P K Purwar said that the company will launch 4G services in December and then roll it across the country by June 2024. The chairman added that the 5G upgrades will take place after June next year.

In a post on X shared by BSNL’s Andhra Pradesh (@bsnl_ap_circle) unit, the company confirmed that BSNL users can upgrade their older 2G or 3G SIMs to a 4G SIM for free. Not only will the upgrade be free, but a promotional image shared with the post suggests that users who opt for the upgrade will also receive 4GB of free data that will be valid for three months. It is speculated that BSNL is aiming to boost its upcoming 4G services with this offer. The announcement was first spotted by Telecom Talk.

To access the free data offer and the free upgrade, BSNL users are requested to get in touch with executives at BSNL’s Customer Service Centre, franchisee or retailer stores, or contact one of their Direct Selling Agents (DSA). The promo image also adds in a finer print that the offer is available with certain terms and conditions, but hasn’t detailed any, so far.

Reliance’s Jio recently launched the 4G-supported Bharat B1 feature phone in India. The handset is priced at Rs. 1,299 in India. Alongside 4G connectivity, the phone comes with JioCinema and JioSaavn applications pre-installed.

The Jio Bharat B1 is equipped with the JioPay application, which is said to allow users to make UPI payments. Aiming to increase accessibility, the phone supports 23 languages overall, including multiple regional languages.


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Realme GT 5 Pro Teased to Feature 3,000 Nits Display; More Details Revealed

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Realme GT 5 Pro Teased to Feature 3,000 Nits Display; More Details Revealed


Realme GT 5 Pro’s launch date is not far away. The Chinese smartphone brand on Tuesday (November 7) confirmed the arrival of the new GT series smartphone in its home country. The Realme GT 5 Pro is teased to come with a display with over 3000 nits of peak brightness. It is also confirmed to pack a larger heat dissipation area for thermal management. The handset will ship with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 SoC. The Realme GT 5 Pro is expected to come as a successor to the Realme GT 5 that debuted in China in August.

Realme, via Weibo, announced the arrival of the Realme GT 5 Pro in China. The display of the handset is confirmed to offer 3000 nits peak brightness. It has also been teased to offer heat dissipation with a surface area of around 10,000mm2. It is confirmed to ship with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 SoC. The post doesn’t specify the exact launch date of the smartphone, however, given the release of the teasers, the launch could be just around the corner.

The Realme GT 5 Pro has been in the news a lot lately. It is expected to feature a 6.78-inch (1,264×2,780 pixels) AMOLED display and is tipped to come in 8GB, 12GB, and 16GB RAM options along with 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB inbuilt storage options.

For optics, the Realme GT 5 Pro is said to have a triple rear camera unit comprising two 50-megapixel sensors and an 8-megapixel shooter at the rear. The camera setup might include a Sony LYTIA LYT808 sensor, an OmniVision OV08D10 secondary sensor, and a Sony IMX890 telephoto sensor. For selfies, there could be a 32-megapixel sensor at the front. It is said to carry a 5,400mAh battery with support for 100W wired charging and 50W wireless charging.

The Realme GT 5 Pro is expected to come with upgrades over Realme GT 5. The latter was launched in China in August with a price tag of CNY 2,999 for the base model with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.


The Motorola Edge 40 recently made its debut in the country as the successor to the Edge 30 that was launched last year. Should you buy this phone instead of the Nothing Phone 1 or the Realme Pro+? We discuss this and more on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.
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