Disney on autopilot is still pretty good. And that’s the case with the studio’s latest film, “Raya and the Last Dragon.” 500 years ago, a purple plasmatic plague known as the druun swept over the dragon-shaped nation of Kumandra. Magical dragons defending humans sacrificed themselves. And Sisu (Awkwafina), the last of them, annihilated the druun, and laid to rest for eternity. The nation divided, however, becoming five factions — heart, talon, tail, spine, and fang. Sisu’s light, a glowing orb, is guarded by the Chief of Heart, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), and his daughter Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran).
Benja has dreams of peacefully reuniting the kingdoms into one nation again, but after the young Raya is betrayed by princess Namaari (Gemma Chan) of Fang, not only is the world once more plunged into darkness, but the druun come back to turn the helpless humans into stone. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a sweet, albeit monotonous, Southeast Asian-inspired epic that explores trust and grief under a folklore guise.
Screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim explain this lore in the exposition dumping, opening-third of the film. Six years after the fall of Heart, Raya scours the land for Sisu’s river resting place. Her trusty steed Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), a mix of an armadillo and a pill bug, accompanies her across the desert (for much of the film Tuk Tuk is underutilized). Raya does in fact find Sisu, but the deified dragon comes as a surprise.
A lanky messy-mane live-wire, unimposing in her human-sized height and upbeat personality. Awkwafina plays Sisu as that eager best friend who is the life of the party because she’s actually terrible at social cues. Hungry, quick, and without a dishonest bone in her swift-moving body — she awakens to not only discover that the world is still plunged in stone, but so are her brothers and sisters. Each gave up a portion of their power — light, fog, rain, and transformation — so she might use their combined strength to save the planet.
To further contextualize this world, the Southeast Asian-inspired film mixes “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Moana.” The former features a once-proud world, protected by a light force, thrown into ruin. Similarly frozen in time, every tribe’s homeland in “Raya” is slowly decaying. Take Fang. Though protected by water, their population rapidly outgrows their safe usable land. A reality that causes Namaari to take drastic measures to protect her people. Due to the dragon mythology, “Mulan” makes for an easy comparison to “Raya.” Given the presence of a princess leaving her homeland to save her father in search of a mythical beast, however, “Moana” also favorably compares. Especially given the water element of this affair and the clear environmental theme of a world run dry.
Raya and Sisu’s adventure hits on a plethora of formulaic beats. While Raya and Sisu trace their way from nation to nation in a bid to recover the missing pieces of her light, they pick up an entertaining assortment of misfits and orphans. I’ll avoid delving too much into the particulars of each companion because of spoilers, but they enter the fray predictably. Each sidekick is weathering their respective loss, surviving on the fringes of this dystopian world. They’re from communities torn apart by distrust. And for them to recover their loved ones they must first learn to love each other. The energy between these characters would burst with greater emotion if “Raya” found a second theme beyond that of trust. But these sidekicks are plot points instead of pathos inviting figures.
Raya and Sisu’s friendship also never fully develops. Akin to “The Fifth Element,” Raya treats Sisu more as a weapon. One that needs to be hidden rather than as a living creature. On their quest to reassemble the gem, for instance, Raya instructs Sisu to remain in hiding as a human. She worries the competing nations will descend into further war if they know a dragon exists. Not unfounded, her fear puts her at a distance from Sisu. Even when the dragon becomes a mentor to Raya, teaching her to trust others, their dynamic remains surface level.
“Raya,” nonetheless, is enjoyable. Hall and Estrada offer colorful vibrant animation that realistically pops off the screen. While a Disney film possessing striking visuals certainly isn’t newsworthy, the studio’s ceaseless ability to visually progress remains remarkable. A fully lived-in universe, the animated film is more than an anthropological recreation. The filmmakers took great care to incorporate the lavish geometric architecture, fashionable functional clothes, and earthy palettes of Southeast Asian countries like Laos, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, etc. to bring their world alive. The character designs are equally unique and varied. They differ in hairstyles and vast sunkist terrains and demonstrate the full tapestry of Asia beyond China and Japan.
Not only are the crafts unmistakably brilliant, the adversarial rivalry between the two strong women, Raya and Namaari, is also captivating because though they are princesses, they’re warriors first. While the animated film mostly harps on a single theme — learning to trust others — and rarely explores a narrative beyond that myopic scope: The pair’s struggle is lively. They are their parents’ children. They are their upbringing. Due to her scheming mother, for instance, Namaari walks with a hardened edge. On the other hand, after Namaari’s childhood betrayal, Raya has trouble letting others in. When all else fails in this fantastical flick, their conflict works. Their grounded fight sequences serve as highlights. Especially the choreography and inventiveness of Raya’s swordplay. Their respective hopes of fulfilling their parents’ wishes connect too.
The victorious note “Raya” ends on doesn’t ring as resoundingly as one might expect. That’s the effect of the film being thematically narrow with underdeveloped characters. But the final sequence, especially in this moment of time, which sees communities brought back together, will eviscerate those left unmoored from their loved ones. It did for me. And for all the enchanting elements, the kooky lovable sidekicks, and spirited voice performances from Awkwafina and Tran — the warmth shaking the ash from this well-worn story is the gift of family. The family we are born with. The family we make. The Southeast Asian-inspired “Raya and the Last Dragon” conjures some much-needed magic for a modicum of fun. [B-]
“Raya and the Last Dragon” arrives in theaters and on Disney+ (Premier Access) on March 5.