RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON movie poster | ©2021 Walt Disney Pictures

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON movie poster | ©2021 Walt Disney Pictures

Rating: PG
Stars (voices): Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Alan Tudyk
Writers: Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim, story by Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Adele Lim, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Kiel Murray, Qui Nguyen, John Ripa, Dean Wellins, story ideas by Bradley Raymond, additional story contributions by Helen Kalafatic
Directors: Don Hall & Carlos Lopez Estrada, co-directors, Paul Briggs & John Ripa
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Release Date: March 5, 2021

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is a charming animated quest that goes more or less exactly where we’d expect. It moves along swiftly, presents empowered women matter-of-factly, and has a sort of good (if a bit mixed) message. It just doesn’t have the spark of narrative genius that marks the best of Disney animation.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is set in a world where the multiple cultures resemble those of East and South Asia. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) would seem to be an adept thief in a post-apocalyptic world. But, as she tells us in voiceover, things weren’t always like this.

A prologue in stylized animation shows us events from five hundred years ago that impact the present of Kumandra. After this, Kumandra split into five rival kingdoms. Raya moves us to six years ago, when she and her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), are in the Kingdom of Heart. Here they protect the orb of Sisu, the last dragon, who disappeared centuries earlier after saving the world from the Drune.

The Drune are smoky purple monsters that turn every living thing they touch to stone, as well as creating drought. The orb banished them. However, due to mistrust and misunderstandings, the precious object is shattered. Rulers from each of the other kingdoms abscond with the shards. The Drune return, bringing blight and destroying families.

Raya, who recognizes her role in this fiasco, is determined to bring the pieces back together and to track down Sisu. Given the film’s title, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the last dragon, voiced by Awkwafina, still lives.

It’s fairly refreshing to see a super-powerful character who’s also super-optimistic. Sisu is all for restoring the orb, bringing peace and unity to Kumandra, and also getting her own dragon kin out of their statuary state.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is lovely to look at in terms of color schemes and landscapes. It does have a slightly weird mix of textures. The animators have reached genius levels of replicating water and human hair. Then there’s Sisu, who has fur that recalls Sully from MONSTERS, INC., while the humans look like relatively traditional animated people. When all of these are combined together in some shots, the effect can be a little disorienting.

We definitely enjoy spending time with the determined Raya and the bubbly Sisu. We can also relate to their goals of bringing back together their families and their world.

Beyond this, though, it’s a little hard to parse what we’re meant to get from some plot twists. Be friendly and hope for the best, but don’t trust people too much, but don’t provoke them, but …?

It may be that the grown-up thought behind all of this is that sometimes we have to do more and put up with more than less thoughtful souls around us. RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON articulates much else, but doesn’t speak up on this one directly. It’s therefore hard to tell if we’re supposed to infer this concept, or if this is a byproduct of some odd plotting.

There’s also a reliance on cuteness (and flatulence jokes) that seems aimed at younger viewers. There’s nothing wrong with this, and Disney of course does world-class cute. However, older audience members may feel a little overloaded on this front.

The voice actors are great, and since this is animated, Benedict Wong makes an excellent action hero.  Gemma Chan effectively conveys the emotional turmoil of Raya’s primary adversary.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON has some wonderful moments. It’s genuinely thrilling when Sisu returns to our realm, and there’s never a dull segment. Despite the novel setting and mythology, though, the movie winds up feeling more familiar than it should.

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