Add Disney’s new animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon to the list of 2020 and 2021 movies you’ll desperately wish you could see on the big screen. Set in a magical land called Kumandra that’s heavily inspired by the verdant lushness and cultural artifacts of Southeast Asia, the action-packed quest adventure is streaked with teal and violet whimsies, punctuated by Indiana Jones-style obstacles and dotted by eerie, life-sized statues of people with their arms outstretched and their hands forming a shallow bowl, ready to receive grace. Those rock-hewn figures were once fathers, mothers, children and friends, until a barely containable force called the Druun — a glow of amethyst surrounded by chaotic, ink-black tendrils that’s all the scarier for its lack of malice or sentience — turned many of the people of Kumandra into their own tombstones.
Directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Winnie the Pooh) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), Raya and the Last Dragon — which will simultaneously open in some theaters and be available to stream on Disney+ with a $29.99 upcharge — begins as a wholly resonant downer. (I could say that the film is a kiddie version of The Leftovers, but I’m not sure whether that’s a joke or merely a description.) The film opens with Kumandra fractured into five feuding kingdoms and its dragons, who once protected the people from the Druun, extinct. The sole remnant of the dragons’ storied existence is a gem created by those flying creatures, which warrior-princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father, Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), have sworn to protect. Chief Benja hopes that he and his neighbors can come together in peace, but his bid at diplomacy is met by a betrayal from Raya’s new friend, Namaari (Gemma Chan), and leads to the gem’s fragmentation and scattering to the ends of Kumandra.
Yes, that’s a lot of exposition. Thankfully, Hall and López Estrada convey the backstory much more gracefully, through a gorgeous jewel-toned batik- and shadow puppet-inspired sequence that’s a visual highlight of the film. Skip ahead six years, as Raya seeks to revive Sisu (Awkwafina), the fuzzy turquoise dragon that protected humanity with the gem — and through its magic, her own father, who has also been turned to stone. Sisu’s the first to admit that she’s “not, like, the best dragon.” She’s a really good swimmer, she swears. But all of Sisu’s siblings, who’ve since been turned to statuary, seem to have been the special ones.
Raya and the Last Dragon sends its titular characters in search of the gem pieces hidden in Kumandra’s other realms. But a focus on its conventional form — even its epic sweep and clever world-building — misses the elements that make the feature so bracing, from its mournful tone and relatively novel stakes to its many tributes to Southeast Asian cultures. (An early scene involving a simmering pot of soup with ingredients from all over Kumandra is so delectable you can practically smell the chilis and lemongrass wafting off the screen.) Delightfully, the imaginary land of Kumandra — which also includes snowy mountains and dried-up deserts — is also home to a small bestiary of chimerical creatures, like Raya’s trusty Tuk Tuk (a cross between an armadillo and a pill bug) and the giant cats Namaari and her soldiers ride into battle.
Without meaning to, Raya and Sisu build a ragtag mini-army on their journey across Kumandra — a team that comes to include a gentle giant (Benedict Wong), a boy-wonder restauranteur (excellent newcomer Izaac Wang) and a naughty quartet I won’t spoil. Makeshift families are de rigueur in sojourns like these, but screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim ever-so-lightly suggest the losses the Druun has dealt them. Those melancholy elements — shared by the refreshingly none-too-sacharine preceding short “Us Again” — shouldn’t repel younger viewers, though, who’ll surely be taken by the rollicking chases and kinetic fight scenes captured by a dynamic and mobile “camera.”
And yet perhaps most welcome is the retreat from the Bratz aesthetic in the character design. Raya and Namaari look like the 20-something grown women that they probably are. Even more remarkable is the detail in the faces of the two rivals and Sisu in her human form — yeah, she does that — which suggest something of the diversity in facial features among a group of people often stereotyped as all looking the same.
Over and over again, misanthropic Raya tut-tuts what she sees as Sisu’s friendly naiveté, while the dragon argues that you can’t change the world without changing yourself first. Tran’s pitch-perfect performance makes organic even the heavier character beats, while Muppet-voiced Awkwafina remains a master at finding the humor in the most humdrum dialogue through offbeat line readings. Raya and the Last Dragon occasionally crawls, but most of the time it’s got urgency and momentum to spare. Just as impressively, it builds to a deeply moving climax whose resolution is unexpected yet consummate. This is a film that knows how to soar.
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk
Directors: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Screenwriters: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim
Producers: Peter Del Vecho, Osnat Shurer
Executive Producers: Jennifer Lee, Jared Bush,
Production designer: Helen Mingjue Chen, Paul A. Felix
Editor: Fabienne Rawley, Shannon Stein
Music: James Newton Howard
Casting: Jamie Sparer Roberts
Rated PG, 114 minutes