At a time when it’s seemingly impossible to reach consensus about anything from science and meteorology to how economies function and who should benefit from them, it’s either daring or divisive for “Raya and the Last Dragon” to make a case for reaching out to our enemies and trusting them to put the common good above factional rivalry.
How viewers will respond to that kind of message in a family-friendly period fantasy will no doubt vary, but the film itself is a gorgeous piece of work that features elaborate and ambitious world-building, stunning visuals and an A-team of impressive voice actors. It’s a film with a lot on its mind and plenty of plot and character plates to spin, but the results are both impressive and exciting.
Screenwriters Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and Qui Nguyen craft a plot that’s easy to follow yet hard to summarize, but here goes: Five hundred years ago, plague creatures known as the Druun stalked the land of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together in peace and harmony, turning people and dragons alike into stone. They were stopped only when Sisu, the remaining dragon, put the last bit of dragon magic into a gemstone.
Following the end of the plague, Kumandra splintered into five provinces. When one of the five tries to steal the gemstone for itself, it shatters into pieces, weakening its powers and bringing back the Druun. Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), who had dreamed of reuniting Kumandra, is turned to stone.
Six years later, Benja’s daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) manages to summon the spirit of Sisu (Awkwafina), and the two put together a crew that includes Boun (Izaac Wang, “Good Boys”), an orphan who runs a floating restaurant; a con-artist infant (Thalia Tran) and her team of simian henchmen; and warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), the last soldier standing from the Spine province.
Each piece of the stone endows Sisu with the power of her sibling dragons, who sacrificed themselves to stop the Druun, but Raya must put aside her anger — particularly at rival princess Namaari (Gemma Chan) — and learn to trust in her enemies if Kumandra has any chance of being restored.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” has a moral that’s open to various interpretations, but it’s a fable that succeeds on many levels, from its rich sense of atmosphere to its dynamic female leads. (Frenemies Raya and Namaari may technically be “Disney princesses,” but they’re more Xena than Sleeping Beauty.) Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, along with co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, give each province tangibly distinct looks, not only in the various color schemes but also in terrain, weather and even lighting. Even when the script throws a lot of characters and situations at us, it’s always clear where we are in the film’s geography as well as the status of the quest.
Given that the film’s mythology is both dense and tragic in the early sequences, the comic appearance of Awkwafina as the titular last dragon is a little jarring at first, like dropping Robin Williams’ genie from “Aladdin” into the middle of “The Hunger Games.” Her presence eventually softens the film (as does the eventual appearance of Boun and the rest of the crew that tags along), making the storyline ultimately able to balance earth-shattering stakes and charming character development.
There’s neither a love story nor musical numbers here, and neither are missed; this is a film brimming over with humor and adventure, breathtaking fight choreography and eye-popping fantasy. (These dragons come in every color of the rainbow, and they’re fuzzy rather than scaly.) That Disney has gotten to a place where it can accommodate complex storytelling, characters of color (the voice cast also includes Sandra Oh, Sung Kang and Patti Harrison) and women with strength and agency makes “Raya and the Last Dragon” both a groundbreaker for one of Hollywood’s most venerable animation studios and, one hopes, a harbinger of more challenging entertainments in the years to come.
(Attached to “Raya and the Last Dragon” is “Us Again,” a dance-centric animated short about an older couple rejuvenated by a walk in the rain. Like “Raya,” it represents new achievements in the visual representation of water in CGI animation, but beyond that, it’s absolutely lovely. “Us Again” screens exclusively in theaters before premiering on Disney+ in June.)
“Raya and the Last Dragon” opens in select theaters and Disney+ PVOD March 5.