A lone figure blasts across a barren wasteland, riding a single rolling wheel like a Suzuki motorcycle, face masked and emitting a very full-metal-Furiosa energy — this is our introduction to the hero of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, a cold opening served medium-hot. Centuries ago, in a world known as Kumandra, nations were united and dragons filled the skies. Then a plague known as “the Druun” swept in, a purple haze that turned man and beast temporarily to stone. It was eventually repelled by a jewel that contained the combined energy of those magnificent, scaly creatures, who remained statues even as Homo sapiens regained their mobility.
The bonds that held folks together had been frayed beyond repair, however. Tribes formed, each named after dragon parts: Fang, Talon, Spine, Tail. Those who rallied under the moniker of “Heart” protect the Dragon Gem. A brave man named Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is in charge of keeping it safe and sound; his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a sort of ninja-sprite in training, will one day take his place. Paranoia among the factions, however, literally split the talisman into several pieces. The Druun returned, leaving only a parental sacrifice (because Disney) and pockets of non-granite survivors in its wake.
Now, Raya scours what’s left of the five kingdoms along with her pill-bug-like pet hedgehog — he’s the rolling wheel, FYI — in search of the remaining shards of the Gem. There are many enemies and obstacles that stand in her way. Soon, however, this lone warrior will have a key ally in her quest. The title is a bit of a giveaway as to whom that is.
It’d be easy, if a little reductive, to characterize Raya and the Last Dragon as a mere Disney princess movie with dystopian bells and whistles, or just a fantasy-cinema answer to decades of the Mouse House’s tiara-industrial-complex output; a sense of empowerment and role-model rethinking has been embedded into Disney’s animated happily-ever-afters since the late Nineties. Even the movie’s mash-up of Southeast Asian folklore, which borrows bits and pieces from all over the continent, feels less like an attempt to diversify a genre long past a legacy of lily-whiteness than a hodgepodge backdrop for good ol’ derring-do. (When Benja makes a peace-offering stew with ingredients from all five nations, he’s describing the movie’s diplomatic, one-size-fits-all Eastern mysticism in a nutshell — and an approach that hasn’t been without its critics.) What this original story from screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and numerous other credited co-directors/creative collaborators gives us isn’t really Pan-Asian culture, however, so much as an amalgam of pop culture: princess toons, sure, but also nods to everything from Indiana Jones to Mad Max, Game of Thrones to The Last Airbender, wuxia epics to heist flicks and buddy comedies. And while the action-set pieces and stand-offs and Raya–ders of the Lost Ark sequences are indeed thrilling, it’s the buddy-comedy aspect that actually makes the movie come alive.
Enter the Dragon. Courtesy of a tearful incantation, Raya brings back the spirit of Sisu, the majestic reptile who originally vanquished the Druun, back from the great beyond. The runt of the mythological litter, she’s admittedly not the best of the bunch: “You ever do a group project, and there’s that one kid that doesn’t really pitch in but gets the same grade?” But Sisu’s siblings picked her to be their savior for some reason. Now, like her new companion, the creature has got to prove her worth or die trying.
She is sassy, furry, snarky, and funny — a sort of Mushu Redux by way of My Little Pony. Sisu is also voiced by Awkwafina, which tells you everything you need to know about the character in one fell swoop. Bringing the same manic, motormouthed energy she’s brought to everything from Crazy Rich Asians to her Comedy Central show, the star turns the dragon into Raya’s foil, her best friend, the movie’s primary (but not only) comic relief and its main source of energy. The movie stacks its deck with a lot of supporting characters, from Namaari (Gemma Chan), Raya’s frenemy with the awesome Tegan-and-Sara haircut, to a one-eyed barbarian lug (Benedict Wong) and not one but two precocious kid protagonists. (You want a baby pickpocket with monkey sidekicks? You got it!) But it’s the interplay between Raya and Sisu, the warrior and the wiseacre, that makes an often stock storyline snap, crackle, and pop. What we have here is really a by-the-book hero’s journey, but what’s the thing they say about success being the journey and not the destination? Tran’s vulnerable-yet-formidable fighter complements Awkwafina’s high-on-nitrous riffing; what might seem ho-hum or borderline annoying on its own turns into a nice push-pull double act.
Yet it’s arguably the outside knowledge viewers might bring to Raya and the Last Dragon as they watch it in theaters (please be safe) or on Disney+ starting this weekend that makes it feel like more than just something new to click and consume. The movie’s plague, “born from human discord,” and its theme of unity conquering divisiveness are corny sentiments that may oddly resonate at the moment. You do not need to read the news to see its cultural representation as a necessary counter-narrative. Kudos to folks already aware that Don Hall was responsible for the 2014 underrated animated movie Big Hero 6 or that Disney newbie Carlos López Estrada was the director of the 2018 indie drama Blindspotting — you’ll still feel that, old warhorse narrative or not, there is some fresh blood pumping in Raya and the Last Dragon’s veins regardless.
And you don’t have to come to the table fully aware of what Kelly Marie Tran has been through over the past few years to feel that the sense of empowerment in this character may have struck a chord with her, and how that gives some of her line readings an extra power and sense of clapback reverberation. It’s not a spoiler to say that this Disney film, which starts off so desolate and bleak, ends on a high note. Or, for that matter, that the sense of triumph radiating from the project isn’t coming just from the victory you’re seeing onscreen.