The usual hallmarks are all there: a mythical land, packs of wondrous creatures, a plucky heroine, a mystery to untangle, and a time-spanning journey that ties all these classic Disney princess story beats up in service to a vivid, emotional animated epic. Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” may not break the Disney Princess mold, but the directing duo — plus screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim and a star-packed cast of voice actors — find new ways to evolve the concept, with delightful results.
The big joke of “Raya and the Last Dragon” has already been (arguably) spoiled by its marketing: that the eponymous last dragon, a vaunted and mythical figure believed to be the key to healing centuries of strife, is actually kind of a ditzy teenage girl (voiced with awkward perfection by Awkwafina). And yet what “Raya and the Last Dragon” excels at is joining that (admittedly, very amusing) gag with a rich story about acceptance, found families, and the power of trust. Plus, a giant pill bug sidekick named Tuk Tuk!
Set in the mythical land of Kumandra — based on Southeast Asia, enough to launch Raya as the Mouse House’s first Southeast Asian princess — “Raya and the Last Dragon” opens with a zippy, time-spanning introduction that encapsulates a millennia of Kumandran history, care of Raya (voiced by the effervescent Kelly Marie Tran). Centuries ago, Kumandra was a vast, geographically diverse region joined together by its citizens shared love of dragons (heck, the place even looks like a dragon on a map, with every inch of it animated in gorgeous detail). But the arrival of the Druun — dark tornadoes of dread and despair, basically — shook up that seeming happiness, turning any humans who looked upon them to stone and wrecking havoc on the brave dragons who fought to stop them.
So far, so depressing. But, as is often the case in Disney films, a heroine arose to protect the world: Sisu, the last dragon, who (somehow, more on that later) used her remaining energy to craft a magical gem that vanquished the Druun, saved the formerly stone humans, and appeared to kill her, leaving Kumandra “saved” — but without its beloved dragon protectors. The region splintered, with each of its five distinct clans breaking off into regions named after the part of the map-dragon they occupy (“Spine,” “Fang,” “Heart,” etc.). The Heart clan has long held on to Sisu’s stone, which only continues to stir the ire of the rest of the clans.
Such is the world Raya has been born into. And while that might sound scary, Raya is already used to facing down fear long before “Raya and the Last Dragon” gets to the meat of its big, epic, and daunting story. Raya’s family — essentially, just tween Raya and her dad Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), another traditional single-parent Disney clan — has long been tasked with protecting Sisu’s gem. She takes the job seriously, and her butt-kicking training has prepared her to always, always fight for the stone. Benja, however, has other ideas: He wants to reunite the people of Kumandra, convinced that decades of strife and misunderstanding can be healed.
Benja is wrong, but his desire to put aside so much pain, suffering, and greed motivates Raya to take action. After being double-crossed by fellow princess Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan) and accidentally summoning the return of the Druun, Raya loses everything: Her father, most of the gem, and any lingering sense that Kumandra could ever be re-unified. Six years later, things have only gotten worse.
Now a teenager, Raya (accompanied by a very large Tuk Tuk) hasn’t entirely given up hope, and has crisscrossed nearly every inch of Kumandra to search out the end of each river in the region (there are, to be sure, many), based on a last-ditch hope that Sisu might still be alive at the water’s edge. They say never meet your heroes, but Raya is about to meet hers: a flashy, silly, all-powerful purple dragon, who is indeed waiting to be woken up by Raya’s fervent wish (and the one chunk of the gem she still possesses, having lost the rest of it to the other tribes).
Mythologizing has damned many heroes, and Sisu is no exception. Raya has spent her entire life learning about the brave dragon and her final selfless act to save her human charges, but Sisu is, well, kind of a spacey teen. She’s also the one being who really understands the power of someone who just wants to help, even if they’re not necessarily equipped to do things on their own. It’s a lesson Raya — and many other grief-stricken Kumandrans the unlikely duo will soon meet — have to learn. Fortunately, Hall and Estrada’s jaunty direction pairs nicely with Nguyen and Lim’s wonderfully smart script to add plenty of humor to an otherwise dark story. Sisu’s real nature might initially seem like a gag, but it’s also the foundation for an essential part of the film’s messaging about the humanity behind all heroism.
Raya will learn that herself, as she and Sisu set out on a quest to find the rest of the gem bits and join them together. Along the way, they pick up a murderer’s row of zany new pals, from the congee-slinging kid ship captain Boun (voiced by Isaac Wang) to the gruff warrior Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong), even a baby con artist and her monkey friends. It’s a wacky assemblage, but “Raya and the Last Dragon” is so rooted in emotion, that this motley crew is capable of kicking up big laughs and more than a few tears.
One complication: Namaari, still feeling the effects of kinda-sorta bringing about the end of the world (again) and desperate to reassemble the gem for her own uses. There are many villains in “Raya and the Last Dragon” — the Druun, greed, even environmental upheaval — but none so powerful as human fallibility. When they were just kids, Raya and Namaari were joined by their love for dragons, and while that affection has been twisted over the years, it may still hold the key for solving scads of problems. If only they can see past their anger and differences.
As Raya, Sisu, and their new pals move through a stunning, colorful Kumandra, “Raya and the Last Dragon” builds to a satisfying conclusion. While some of the themes eventually feel heavy-handed (one can only endure a handful of monologues about trust before tuning out), but the resulting final sequences illuminate those concepts in fresh ways. As the Disney princess brand has continued to evolve, from the introduction of newbies like Moana to the continuing popularity of classics like Tiana and Mulan, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a sterling example of how the trope still has room to grow — while proving that some of the original ingredients can still deliver the goods.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” will hit select theaters and streaming via Disney+ Premier Access on Friday, March 5.
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