Disney’s latest animated adventure is Raya and the Last Dragon, a magic-laced quest picture in the vein of Frozen and Moana, but this time taking its cues from Southeast Asian culture and folklore. Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, is the first Southeast Asian heroine of an animated Disney film, and she keeps alive the tradition of spunky Disney daughters (with absent mothers). She’s a highly trained warrior charged by her chieftain father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), to protect the dragon gem, a magic rock that keeps the world safe from the “druun”, purple smoke monsters that turn people into stone. While there is a case to be made that Disney’s patchwork approach to non-white cultures is reductive (see also: Moana and Oceana), the combination of cultures in Raya is less monolithic as Raya traverses five different lands within her home realm of Kumandra, with each land given a unique identity. With the sprawling world of Kumandra and the magical influence of dragons, Raya approaches Coco levels of beautiful to look at.
After a childhood mistake leaves Raya feeling responsible for the decimation of the world, she is desperate to find the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), and use her magic to bring back all the people affected by the druun, which Sisu says are the embodiment of human fear and distrust. The message of Raya is not complex, but it is well made throughout the film. Burned by someone she thought was a friend, Raya has a hard time trusting others, even puppy-faced Sisu (Awkwafina’s enthusiastic vocal performance is a great match for the puppyish Sisu design), and the magic of the dragon gem won’t really work until people are united once again, and reinforcing the message is a moment of dramatic consequence when Raya can’t quite get it together. Raya comes from a committee of writers, including Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Qui Nguyen (The Society), as well as directors Carlos Lopez Estrada and Don Hall, among others, but it doesn’t feel like a script written by committee. Everything hangs together and the story unfolds at a perfect pace, with enough adventuresome moments to please the kiddos and a positive message about the importance of trust and good faith to please parents.
There are no songs, though. If you’re looking for a sing-along, Raya ain’t it. The story is action-packed enough that you won’t miss songs, though James Newton Howard’s score rises out of the sound mix in key moments in a way that will make you think there will be a song. There is every other variety of Disney cliché, though. Raya’s mother is mysteriously absent—seriously, WHAT does Disney have against moms?—she has an animal sidekick in the giant rolling pangolin Tuk Tuk (grunts provided by Alan Tudyk); there’s a gruff warrior, Tong (Benedict Wong); and a cute baby, Little Noi (Thalia Tran), that feels borrowed from a Pixar movie. All the voice performances are good, most notably Awkwafina, Tran, and Gemma Chan as Raya’s nemesis, Namaari, but ultimately Awkwafina steals the show. There are moments between Sisu and Namaari that remind me of the relationship between Molly Grue and the unicorn in The Last Unicorn.
It’s a little bit of a shame this film is coming out now, when movie theaters are only partially open, and only in some places, because this is the kind of film that deserves to be seen on the big screen, with a packed audience of delighted kids reflecting the energy of the film. Maybe at some point down the line, Disney will re-release it for the big screen experience. At this point Disney Animation, like Pixar, has their formula down pat, but Raya and the Last Dragon transcends formulaic storytelling with its heart and eye-popping visuals. It has strong The Last Unicorn vibes, with Sisu as a goofy version of the unicorn, and enough humor and action to keep the kids engaged while they learn the importance of trust and accepting help. Invoking The Last Unicorn is the highest compliment I can give an animated fantasy film.
Raya and the Last Dragon will be in theaters and streaming on Disney+ with premiere access from March 5.