Five hundred years ago, the world broke. Life was beautiful back then; all the souls of Kumandra lived in harmony with each other and with the dragons. Then greed and avarice reared their ugly heads, and strife was born in the form of the Druun—a mysterious dark cloud that turned humans and dragons alike into stone. With an act of sacrifice and salvation, four dragons combined their powers into a crystal and gave it to the fifth, Sisu, who used the crystal to banish the Druun and save humanity.
Work it did, but the damage was done: The Druun had driven a stake through the heart of Kumandra, dividing the land into five warring kingdoms: Fang, Spine, Talon, Tail, and Heart, the last of which guards the dragon crystal and holds the Druun at bay.
So opens Raya and the Last Dragon, the latest from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Using graphic animation with the texture of cutout paper and swift-moving storytelling with a predilection for maps, Raya’s prologue hints at a complex past that looks and sounds so entertaining what follows must be better. Yet, what follows is not the story, but another prologue: This one of a father, Heart Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), and his daughter, Raya, engaged in a 500-year long tradition of protecting the dragon crystal. Their relationship is sweet, if saccharine, and ultimately doomed. This is a Disney movie, after-all; parents tend not to last long. And Benja doesn’t: In an attempt to heal the land and build trust among the five factions, Benja invites the other kingdoms to Heart, only to have one of them try to steal the crystal, breaking it in the process. The broken crystal unleashes the Druun, and dear old dad is reduced to a stone pillar while young Raya is spared thanks to a shard of the dragon crystal and the safety provided by water.
Fast-forward six years, and we’re in the thick of it. Young Raya is now a young adult (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), armed with a curvy sword that can split like vertebra into an endlessly useful tool and accompanied by Tuk Tuk—an oversized furry roly-poly that Raya drives like a Big Wheel. Raya is questing the five kingdoms for the remaining crystal shards. If she can find them and bind them, she might be able to dispel the Druun, reverse the stone curse, and reunite with her father. But before that can happen, Raya has to track down the entombed Sisu, the dragon who banished the Druun in the first place, in hopes that Sisu might be able to use her magic once more. But there’s a problem, Sisu’s magic is far less grandiose than Raya expected: She’s a fast swimmer.
Sure, being a fast swimmer has its uses, but considering what Raya thought she had in store, it’s a little deflating. So is the movie. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, from a script by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, Raya is so chocked full of story that it distracts from the movie’s overall message, which is simple and effective. It’s about trust, and Raya gives you plenty of opportunities to latch on to it. It also gives you a lot of everything else: Worldbuilding, character backstory, fight scenes, flights of fancy, etc. All of it presented in an animation style that looks like a cross between a Final Fantasy cut scene and a Disney XD show, with the pacing to boot. Raya cranks along like the whole movie’s playing in double time, leaving little space for its supporting cast: Boun (Izaac Wang), an orphan who runs a restaurant on his family boat, Tong (Benedict Wong), a bruiser with a heart of gold, Little Noi, a baby who runs cons with a pack of Ongis (half-monkey half-catfish)—the baby is odd—and Sisu (Awkwafina), who exhibits rambunctious energy reminiscent of Disney’s deep bench of magical creatures.
Then there’s Raya’s antagonist, Namaari (Gemma Chan), a warrior princess from the kingdom of Fang. She has even more trust issues than Raya, and their fight scenes are some of the best moments in the movie—probably because their relationship rings true while everything around them feels like a grab bag of Disney archetypes, fantasy tropes, and Southeast Asian reference points. The elements are present, but the cohesion is not.
Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Co-directed by Paul Briggs, John Ripa
Screenplay by Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim
Story by Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Adele Lim, Carlos López Estrada, Kiel Murray, Qui Nguyen, John Ripa, Dean Wellins
Produced by Peter Del Vecho, Osnat Shurer
Featuring the vocal talents of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Alan Tudyk
Walt Disney Animated Studios, Rated PG, Running time 114 minutes, Opens March 5, 2021 in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.