Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s Raya and the Last Dragon recalls—and improves upon—the lifelike richness of recent Disney entertainments like Moana, and shares a somber-minded maturity, some broad plot elements, and a commitment to representing multiple Asian cultures on screen with Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of course, while that Nickelodeon series drew upon East Asian traditions, this film meticulously merges elements from various Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
But, in its expansive world-building and aesthetic variety, Raya and the Last Dragon most viscerally conjures up the experience of watching a Star Wars film. Raya’s (Kelly Marie Tran) journey from land to land—from the floating marketplace of Talon to the marble palaces of Fang—captures the sense of communities with their own rituals, color palettes, and unique problems (such as, in Talon, con-artist babies feigning sweetness). And the script by Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and playwright Qui Nguyen compellingly unspools the widening mythology of a fantasy world without sacrificing the momentum of its protagonist’s saga.
At the start of the film, Kumandra is a fractured kingdom, marred by violent power grabs among five isolationist nations and haunted by the Druun, smoke-like monsters that have transformed thousands of citizens to stone. Six years after her father (Daniel Dae Kim) fell victim to this scourge, Raya is on a quest to rebuild a shattered magical gem and reanimate a legendary dragon that once saved Kumandra and banished the Druun centuries ago.
If this plot progresses with the steady predictability of a video game—in each land, Raya will obtain another piece of the gem and recruit members for her ragtag team of adventurers—the lushness of those landscapes and Raya’s evolution stave off any sense of repetitiveness. Raya, crucially, has trust issues: It was her own youthful mistaken faith in Namaari (Gemma Chan), a fellow “dragon nerd” from a neighboring land, that caused the destruction of the gem and the release of the Druun years earlier. Each of Raya’s new companions forces her to confront her fear of misplacing her trust, and the film nicely reflects the girl’s demons on a geopolitical scale in the refusal of the five nations to unify against the threat they face.
As Raya’s would-be savior, the water dragon Sisu, Awkwafina gives the sort of distinctive, scene-stealing voice performance that inevitably calls to mind Robin Williams’s Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Against the lofty backdrop of a high fantasy epic, Awkwafina’s speed-talking, self-deprecating wryness, familiar from her past comedy roles, seems itself otherworldly, a contemporary presence in a mythic landscape. Adorable sidekicks in the grand Disney tradition also abound in Raya and the Last Dragon, like the part-pill bug, part-armadillo Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), playing the role of both pet and transportation, and Captain Boun (Izaac Wang), a child chef and sea captain who’s lost his family to the Druun.
Though Raya is a gutsy, noble heroine with an admirable self-belief in her own intelligence and strength, the shock of her betrayal by Namaari has left an unshakable aftertaste that sometimes leads her to act impulsively out of rage or vengeance. The specter of the girl’s anger lends a level of real peril to the extended fight sequences that seem to journey beyond Disney’s usual low-fear fare. Through her martial arts battles, usually with Namaari, alternatively with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, the intense choreography suggests that both young women are fatal dangers to each other. There’s a refreshing rashness to Raya that, building on the inner turmoil of Frozen’s Queen Elsa of Arendelle, asks audiences to accept a heroine’s imperfections, even when they’re sometimes scary in action. These violent clashes aren’t the only elements of the film that linger in darkness: When Raya and Sisu meet the gruff Tong (Benedict Wong), all alone in a devastated realm, Raya’s gaze hovers on an empty crib in the corner, a wordless illumination of a loss too painful to discuss.
Raya and the Last Dragon avoids a more somber, bittersweet ending that it could have just as easily pulled off: Mortality and bottomless despair, in the last act, turn out to be easily reversible. But perhaps young audiences these days don’t need Disney movies to tell them that “a plague, born from human discord,” as Sisu describes the Druun, can do lasting damage. On its own gorgeously depicted terms, this film sticks the landing as a celebration of hope, a manifestation of what unfettered trust in our shared humanity could look like.