The first major animated feature for a post-Trump era, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is as leftie a toon as Disney has ever made, though its core message of unity and come-togetherness should hardly seem political at all. Notably, it’s a movie with no villain, no love interest, no musical numbers and no talking animals — unless you count Awkwafina’s loquacious (and potentially world-saving) water dragon Sisu. Progressive as this formula-bending family movie may be, “Raya” still feels every bit a Disney offering — one whose proactive princess (technically, she’s the brave daughter of an incapacitated chieftain) ought to entertain and inspire kids to do more than passively await true love’s kiss.
Set in the make-believe realm of Kumandra — inspired by that region of Southeast Asia represented by Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam (all toured by the production team on research trips) — “Raya” opens with an elaborate prologue, the gist of which suggests that humans are their own worst enemy. That’s a pretty dark blanket statement coming from Disney, even more cynical than such apocalyptic eco-adventures as “Avatar” (where a few good apples redeem a craven species), but consistent with the humans-are-horrible messaging of recent Marvel movies.
Kumandra was once a unified paradise, but owing to the wickedness of people, menacing amethyst-colored energy balls known as Druun were unleashed, turning any person in their path into a statue. A lone dragon, Sisu, spared humankind, but that couldn’t stop the survivors from splintering into five tribes, each named for a different part of the dragon: Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail and Talon.
Half a millennium later, headstrong Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran of the latest “Star Wars” trilogy) was born into Heart and tasked with protecting the powerful Dragon Gem. Turns out, the precious orb is protecting humans from themselves, which they learn the hard way when Namaari (Gemma Chan), a girl from Fang, tries to steal it, causing the stone to shatter.
Instantly, the Druun reemerge, and Raya’s dad is fossilized, petrified in place like one of China’s ancient terra-cotta warriors. For a moment, it seemed as if Raya had found a friend in Namaari, but instead, her betrayal underlines the untrustworthiness of humans. Now, with the gem smashed and its pieces divided — one to each kingdom — the world devolves into a desolate and dangerous place.
That’s a lot of backstory for kids to get through in the opening act, although “Raya” is pitched at young teens, who should be able to handle the film’s flashy style and densely compacted plot. That demo will likely also thrill to the many martial-arts action scenes, some of which rival even the spectacle overload of Disney’s live-action “Mulan.” Co-directors Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”) bring a certain irreverent energy to the computer-animated project, seeking clever visual solutions to the script’s many clichés, and yet the film doesn’t flow so much as lurch from one big set-piece to the next, raising significant logic questions along the way.
For example, six years on from the long prologue, we catch up with Raya and her armadillo-like sidekick, Tuk Tuk, on the brink of a major turning point: She has somehow located the resting place of Sisu, and by performing a ritual, conjures the dragon. If this were “Aladdin” (which the creative team clearly had in mind), everyone would know that rubbing a lamp is all it takes to free the genie. But here, it seems entirely too easy to resurrect such a rare and elusive creature. The movie breezes through this important detail, skipping straight to the payoff.
Awkwafina is a gifted comic actor (and, as “The Farewell” revealed, a pretty talented dramatic one as well), but she’s no Robin Williams, or Eddie Murphy. When Sisu cracks jokes, her antics bemuse more than amaze. Awkwafina’s wry, gravelly voice is distinctive, and her shape-shifted human form delivers an effective caricature. But in the end, Sisu just isn’t special enough to gain entry to the Disney character hall of fame, left on the stoop alongside Arlo (aka the Good Dinosaur), Chicken Little and Koda (does anyone even remember Brother Bear?). “Raya and the Last Dragon” needed a truly memorable magical creature — like Toothless in DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” — to set it apart, whereas Sisu looks weird, like someone stuck a plastic “My Little Pony” head on a floppy feather-boa body.
Raya, on the other hand, represents a new wave of Disney heroine: strong, independent and more intrepid than the young men who often fill such roles in live-action movies. And Namaari, who could be seen as an antagonist if the movie hadn’t gone out of its way to humanize her motives, is a nearly genderless warrior. It’s significant that neither character is male, since that choice frees “Raya” from the temptation to set the princess up with a romantic suitor. Here, it’s a friendship that’s at stake, and cooperation that can potentially restore Kumandra to its former glory.
In several recent Disney toons (“Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia” come to mind), the directors take the time to describe the various zones of an extended universe, only to focus in on just a couple corners of the allegedly expansive world. But in “Raya,” Hall and López Estrada make it a point to visit all five lands, imbuing each with a distinctive look and mythology. The result gives the film the feel of a condensed Tolkien epic — a “Lord of the Rings”-light quest that takes Raya throughout Kumandra to accomplish her mission.
At each stop, Raya enlists the help of a new friend: 10-year-old wheeler-dealer Boun (Izaac Wang), “con baby” Noi (Thalia Tran) and ax-wielding giant Tong (Benedict Wong). Obviously, Raya’s going to need all of their help to salvage the Dragon Gem, although screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim succeed in surprising us with how this arrangement plays out. A lot of the storytelling is clumsy, rushed or inelegant, but the movie’s timely message of unity and trust still resonates because the filmmakers figured out such a satisfying ending — albeit one that ties things up a little too neatly: so much world-building in service of a one-off. Is this overloaded origin story really the last we’ll see of “The Last Dragon”?
Originally scheduled to open over Thanksgiving, but delayed by the pandemic until March 5, the film was supposed to be accompanied in theaters by Zach Parrish’s “Us Again.” The 7-minute animated short further diversifies the Disney universe with an elderly Black couple whose boogie-woogie relationship (barely visible in a blurry pan across a wall full of photos) has presumably cooled since the now-complacent husband settled into his easy chair. Music drifts in the window, and the old codger reluctantly shakes a leg, and in so doing, rekindles this youthful romance (on what looks like the Santa Monica pier) through dance. It’s exciting to see a cartoon embracing the body language of choreography, even if its message isn’t entirely clear.