‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ slays with mesmerizing visuals, ‘talonted’ cast

Photo from a scene in "Raya and the Last Dragon"
Walt Disney Pictures/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Parity and novelty, freshness and familiarity — these ostensibly opposite ideas coalesce in “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Disney’s latest animated feature joins the coveted ranks of “Moana” and “Frozen” — “Raya,” directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, draws narrative inspiration from these predecessors as it propels another plucky princess on an epic odyssey to recover a lost MacGuffin which will restore her home to its former utopic glory. It’s a formula at this point, right?

Our featured heroine is Raya, voiced by an earnest Kelly Marie Tran, and from the opening shot, it’s clear there is a different electricity pulsing through “Raya.” In a dry voiceover, she identifies herself a “lone ranger,” the camera settling in on her mysterious retreating figure as if she were a John Ford cowboy and not a Disney princess. As Raya roams through a deserted, barren landscape, she explains that it wasn’t always this desolate.

Nearly 500 years prior, the land of Kumandra prospered as a society in which humans and dragons coexisted. Then, the Druuns began to ravage the community; the dragons fought righteously but ultimately in vain. According to the prevailing myth, Sisu, the most powerful dragon, channeled all her energy into an item called Dragon Gem before she vanquished the Druun and vanished. After the dragons’ sacrifice, Kumandra dissolved into five nations named after parts of the dragons. Its premise isn’t wholly original, but it is exquisite.

As Raya retells this history, Hall and Estrada mold their fictive and fantastical world out of cultural realities from Southeast Asian countries. The visuals in “Raya” are wondrous, a feat of meticulous research and vivid imagination. While Disney does not boast the best track record in telling non-Western stories, “Raya” departs from this former lazy hodgepodge worldbuilding. In this new film, each nation embodies a unique lifestyle; they exist each in a particular climate and practice particular values, and these nations are crafted to the brim with immense detail — not just aesthetically but culturally too. The characters wear draped sabai tops and sompot pants, Raya’s sword resembles the Indonesian kris and the film’s fight sequences draw from muay Thai and krabi-krabong. This careful attention flourishes and becomes a dazzling, dynamic world, animated in rich colors and expansive scenery.

Raya lives with her father, who rules the Heart region (though, in the Disney tradition, her mother is notably absent), where the Dragon Gem lies in a secluded cave. After a devastating betrayal, however, the Dragon Gem shatters and Raya is left all alone to restore world peace before the revived Druun destroy everything. From here, the film jumps forward six years — Raya, now a brave, solitary hero, darts between nations to retrieve the scattered Dragon Gem pieces. She’s spent her adolescence relentlessly searching for Sisu in every river with no luck, but when Raya finally finds the dragon, she doesn’t exactly meet the heroic figure from legend and lore.

Voiced by a showstopping Awkwafina, Sisu is awkward, klutzy and absolutely hilarious — she’s also a “really strong swimmer.” As is demonstrated in the title, viewers begin the journey with Raya, but once the dragon enters the frame, “Raya” belongs to Sisu. Awkwafina flexes impeccable comedic timing, fully sinking her teeth into this performance. Another standout performance is Gemma Chan as Namaari, Raya’s rival; Raya and Namaari have a delightful, devilish dynamic and their relationship feels, at least to this writer, a little more than platonic.

Taking root in reality and embracing the veil of fantasy, the filmmakers craft an allegory that champions unity in times of duress and division; the message of trust, however, is weakened by the sour irony of Disney levying an additional $29.99 charge for viewers who already subscribe to Disney+ to watch a film about trust and good faith. “Raya” is better than that.

The film marks important strides in representation as its heroine marks the first Southeast Asian character to star in a Disney animated film. Her character arc is unique and individualized; the film breathes new life into an archaic archetype, and it’s refreshing to realize today’s Disney princesses don’t have a final destination at the altar — Raya is more of a Black Widow than a Briar Rose, anyway. Her bravery, humility and free spirit are more relatable to young girls than matrimony is, regardless of whether the situation is shrouded in fantasy or mythos. “Raya” portends a promising trajectory for the future of Disney princesses, encapsulated in a triumphant adventure film about growing up, healing and collective support.

Maya Thompson covers film. Contact her at [email protected].