Disney’s latest is a rousing, comical, and beautiful animated feature.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is the first Disney Princess animated feature since “Brave” to cut back on the singing and romance tradition. This is neither a musical nor a love story; rather it’s an action adventure with echos from a number of movies like “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Mad Max,” “Ocean’s 11,” and “Aladdin.” Told in South East Asia, the movie uses Chinese warriors, booby traps, desolate wastelands, con artists and elaborate plans, and a comedy star transforming into a cartoon character. These connections and traditions make it an absolute delight.
The title character Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) now lives in a world destroyed by an evil force known as the Druun, which turns people into stone, and also applies to all the dragons who provide peace and prosperity. Her world Kumundra has been divided into five lands, because their leaders became greedy with a magic gem stone, which possesses all the powers of the dragon. And because of that, the gem breaks into five pieces, with Raya having one of them. But one water dragon may still be alive within the stone’s magic, and her name is Sisu.
So when Raya brings the dragon to life, here’s Awkwafina! She’s done some voice work before in “The Angry Birds Movie 2” and “Sponge On The Run,” but this is still her best vocal performance to date. There has been a tradition of comedy stars transforming into Disney characters, which includes Robin Williams in “Aladdin,” Eddie Murphy in “Mulan,” and Dwayne Johnson in “Moana.” They don’t just reflect the personalities and mannerisms of the actors, but they also have human qualities inside them that distinguishes them from cartoon characters. Awkwafina voices Sisu with a flexible amount of energy, and her dragon provides magical moments and strong passion.
These two aren’t alone, because a child boat chef named Boun (voiced by Izaac Wong), a baby con artist and her there simian partners-in-crime named Little Not (voiced by Thalia Tran), and a giant with an eye patch named Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong) join them on their mission to restore peace and order. They all have to dodge the ambitious warrior princess Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chen), who, like most of the world, doesn’t believe Raya can save it. The reason is nobody trusts each other.
There are some silly moments in its important sequences, but “Raya and the Last Dragon” still has its challenges that both kids and adults can relate to. It represents its attempt to bring world peace by allowing a Disney princess to forget those princess cliches, and learn what life can offer. And she also has a comic relief character to tell her violence isn’t the answer. I’ve already delivered my praise to Awkwafina as Sisu, but I must also mention that this is Tran’s second voice work after “The Croods: A New Age,” and this “Star Wars” actress is able to expand her horizons, and bring the main heroine to life. And the rest of the voice cast (also with Daniel Dae Kim as Raya’s father and Sandra Oh as Namaari’s mother) are also excellent.
The animation is radiant and life-like here. I love how real the water looks, and one of the best sequences is when we see a small river going backwards in a lair. And there’s more magic to the attention to detail to both the humans and dragons that makes it a visual wonder. One of the film’s directors is Carlos Lopez Estrada, who made one of 2018’s best films “Blindspotting.” Seeing him take on an animated feature like “Raya and the Last Dragon” is proof that he’s expanding his horizons. It’s an impressive achievement that ranks with the studios’ best.
In Theaters and Streaming for Purchase on Disney+