Contrary to what “Game of Thrones” might have you believe, not all dragons are agents of destruction. In the newest offering from Walt Disney Animation, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” they are kind, full of magic and, when needed, the saviors of humanity.
Five hundred years ago, we’re told in a prologue, dragons sacrificed themselves for humans when a mystical evil called the Druun passed through the lands of Kumandra and turned many to stone. The kingdom splintered into factions — Tail, Talon, Heart, Fang and Spine — who perpetually teeter on the edge of war. Sisu, the only remaining dragon, hasn’t been seen in five centuries.
Raya (voiced by “Star Wars’” Kelly Marie Tran) is the young Princess of Heart. Her father (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) is the Chief who hopes to unite all the territories. It doesn’t go as planned, he’s turned to stone, and Raya is set on a dangerous quest to track down the dragon who she believes is their last hope.
The film comes from the odd but inspired pairing of co-directors Carlos López Estrada (who made the Sundance breakout “Blindspotting”) and Disney veteran Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and was co-written by Vietnamese playwright Qui Nguyen and “Crazy Rich Asians” co-writer Adele Lim. The result is a sweet-natured and wonderfully imaginative fantasy adventure that has shades of “Indiana Jones” and is suitable for the whole family.
“Raya” gets off to a bit of a slow start but stick with it. Once she sets out on her mission, things pick up considerably thanks in no small part to the introduction of Sisu, played by Awkwafina, who doesn’t try to disguise her wonderfully distinctive voice. Raya discovers Sisu is not quite the hero she is looking for, but that’s just part of the journey. Along the way their brood grows with others displaced and orphaned by the Druun and Raya must confront her main foe, a Princess from another land, Namaari (Gemma Chan) who is part of the reason things went awry in the first place.
The animation is both stunning and very computer generated. Sometimes extended shots of the humans talking can start to feel like the uncanny valley and it makes you miss the hand drawn elements of the form. But hand drawn animation also wouldn’t be able to create the stunning vistas and astoundingly lifelike water. It’s a compromise and “Raya” is undoubtedly a visual feast.
It’s also the best kind of feminist film in that it’s one that doesn’t clobber you with the message. Raya is allowed to be awesome without the script shouting about it all the time and it’s better for it. It does however hammer home a message about trust, which, you know, is fair enough. And it has chosen to have yet another middle-aged semi-dystopian female leader bedecked in all white with a severe gray haircut (Namaari’s mom, voiced by Sandra Oh). It’s not that it’s inherently bad, it’s just a lazy choice for a film that is otherwise so inventive.
“Raya” is also notable for the simple fact that it features predominately Asian American voice actors — a first for Disney Animation. The animated “Mulan” had a fair amount too, but a lot were white actors voicing Chinese roles. Will that make a difference to the kids watching? Probably not at the moment, but down the line the authenticity will be appreciated.
“Raya and the Last Dragon,” a Walt Disney Pictures release, in theaters and on Disney+ Friday, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “Some violence, action and thematic elements.” Running time: 114 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Story: Lindsey Bahr