Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina lead the voice cast in Disney’s magnificent, heart-warming animated adventure.
Refreshing in its approach to story, drawn from Southeast Asian folklore, and, perhaps even more importantly, in its depiction of the traditional “Disney princess” (compare with the company’s own descriptions and marketing of such), Raya and the Last Dragon is an encouraging step into a world first broached in Moana (2016), depicting a culture that is not drawn from broad European archetypes.
Instead, it’s an original work, based on a story credited to a slew of writers; the screenplay is credited to Malaysian-born writer Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen, who both have past experience in writing for television and films, while American Don Hall and Mexican-American Carlos Lopez Estrada served as directors. That so many people were involved in writing and directing the project is no surprise, since sprawling animated adventures take far more time than live-action narratives, yet the involvement of people from a number of diverse backgrounds is notable, and suggests why the film is markedly different from past Disney animated films.
On one hand, Raya and the Last Dragon loosely follows a typical modern Disney pattern: young female lead sets off on an adventure in which she meets a motley collection of supporting characters who teach her about life and empower her to achieve goals that empower others. On the other hand, the film’s narrative undercurrents stress the need for humility and self-sacrifice for the greater good, rather than self-fulfillment, or striving after personal or family goals.
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) has spent years in search of a legendary figure, Sisu, who disappeared at the same time as Raya’s father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). Poor Benja transformed into stone, along with throngs of other people, when the malignant forces known as the Druun came to power. If Raya can find Sisu and convince her world “last dragon” to help her, perhaps she can reunite her long-divided land and bring her father (and every other transformed soul) back to life.
Naturally, Raya is bold, courageous, and headstrong, just like past Disney princesses, though the title she holds is self-effacing. She also displays a delightful capacity for fun and games, but she ain’t got time for that now; she is living during wartime, as it were, since the divided nations that sprang up in the wake of the devastating ‘stone war’ remain continually hostile, suspicious of each other’s motives.
In time, Raya teams up with Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), who proves to a most unexpected dragon, and collects a mixed team of collaborators (including a gruff giant warrior voiced by Benedict Wong), who all assist in her ultimate battle against her longtime rival, Namaari (Gemma Chan).
It’s a good story with good characters and good selection of twists and turns, some of which fit broadly into Western narrative tradition, but even more that do not, which flow together to help make the entire film a memorable, sweeping tale that resolves in a very satisfying manner. And, again, the path to the resolution is not entirely expected, which is always a welcome sign as Disney Animation charts a path for the future.
The film opens theatrically in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on February 5, and will also be available to watch on the same date, as a premium Video On Demand title, at DisneyPlus.com.