We don't have a word for Disney's formula. But as moviegoers, we know it when we see it. Take an exotic place, follow a young hero, give them magic, cute animal sidekicks, and wise-cracking mentors voiced by celebrities who talk in anachronisms, and ta-da! The animation is beautiful, the adults are crying, the soundtrack is winning awards, and there you have it: a Disney movie.
It will be unsurprising to know the newest Disney release, Raya and the Last Dragon, on Disney+, is another exemplary work that further cements the studio's dominance in this space with that formula. It's an easy winner, one worth the premium "Premier Access" price tag, as the movie is as classically Disney as it gets.
In Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney's magic heads to Southeast Asia, where Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Filipino, and more cultures come together to influence this impeccably designed and tearfully funny movie about trust and unity across borders. While it sacrifices a Broadway-ready playlist (composer James Newton Howard still comes through with a thumping synth/hip-hop score) and truly emotionally wrenching stakes, its fresh changes to Disney routine and nods to genre epics like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Mad Max: Fury Road, Ocean's Eleven, and the Tomb Raider video games make up for a middleweight script.
From directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and writers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, Raya centers on the titular warrior princess, voiced by Star Wars: The Last Jedi veteran Kelly Marie Tran. When we meet her, Raya is in the beginning stages of her duty as appointed guardian of the Dragon Gem, a relic containing the magic of the last dragons. The movie's setting, Kumandra, is dystopic, a post-dragon kingdom that was once unified but is now split over the absence of dragons who protected Kumandra from monsters called Druun.
Now split into feudal territories, an outreach effort by Raya's father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), goes sideways when the factions break the Dragon Gem and steal the pieces, unleashing the Druun in the process. Six years later, an older, wiser Raya roams a more desolate Kumandra before awakening Sisu (Awkwafina), an ancient water dragon and the last of her kind.
Except, one problem. "I'm gonna be real with you," Sisu says, in Awkwafina's instantly recognizable voice. "I'm not like, the best dragon. Ya know?" (Sisu's continued explanation, an incredible bit involving a "group project" homework metaphor, left me wheezing.) Together, Raya and Sisu work to recollect the Dragon Gem's pieces and restore life and peace in Kumandra.
In a word, Raya is breezy. It's a lean, pleasing action-adventure with rousing martial arts (impressive, given CGI lacks the impact and gravity that makes live-action kung fu iconic) and colorful characters, some more fun than others. Its script never meanders or sags but also never punches above its weight class. At least two expository breakdowns happen in the first 25 minutes, which indicates either a lack of confidence in the writers' abilities or audience attention spans. The "Druun" are an empty force of nature that drives the plot out of obligation rather than genuine urgency.
But there are compelling foils for Raya, Sisu, and the "Fellowship of the Gem" (supporting characters made up of people from other territories). Raya's "villains" are Namaari (Gemma Chan), another princess from a rival family in the Fang Islands, and her mother, Virana (Sandra Oh). Reminiscent of the depths seen in Marvel's Thanos, Virana and Namaari are dimensional antagonists whose end goals aren't selfish but selfless. To them, Raya's family hoarded the Dragon Gem to sit pretty for generations, and the Fang islanders believe they could do a better job for all of Kumandra.
Despite a few lines by Namaari indicating not all that glitters is gold on Fang Island, Raya sadly never commits to its unusual yet compelling thread of class politics. Still, these antagonists are a distinct change in rhythm from Disney's standard-issue villains of stepmothers and witches. (You never rooted for Jafar, but you may find yourself siding with Namaari.)
Set in a fictionalized version of a real region, Raya and the Last Dragon calls to mind past films like Aladdin and Frozen over the Chinese-inspired Mulan. But Raya does share things in common with China's folk hero. Both are fiercely independent warriors who seek to save their homes over finding true love. Raya joins the company of Merida and Moana as another princess with no hetero love interest, but her charged rivalry with Namaari is open sailing for queer shippers.
With that said, Raya stands firmly on her own feet. Bearing shades of Stars Wars' Rey and Legend of Korra's Korra, Raya is an immediately iconic heroine whose visual touchstones of a sun hat and indigenous Filipino weapons (if you're curious, her sticks are "kali" and her sword is a "kris") make an exciting, rarely seen blend of Southeast Asian design and Disney pulp. If we're lucky to have Halloween this year, you can bet Raya will be a new favorite costume, especially for Southeast Asian girls. (Finally, we have a Disney princess!)
You can't ask for more than Raya and the Last Dragon. The story zips by without so much dead weight, the action is top-notch, especially for CGI, the characters are lovable — Sisu is, pun not intended, a truly animated creature thanks to Awkwafina's comic timing — and its visual design, both its sheer imagination and technical fidelity, is remarkable. (I dare you to not be mesmerized by the texture of Sisu's fur or the suds and ripples from the water.) Though the story is less emotionally impactful and resonant than what Disney is capable of, it doesn't stop Raya and the Last Dragon from having a form of magic all its own.
Raya and the Last Dragon streams on Disney+ Premiere Access on March 5.