Featuring an eccentric magical creature and a Disney princess you really wouldn’t want to mess with in a fight, the animated “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an epic and sassy fantasy adventure for youngsters not yet ready for “Game of Thrones.”
Directed by Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”), “Raya” (*** out of four; rated PG; in select theaters and streaming on Disney+ Friday) is a Southeast Asian-inspired melding of magic, comedy, some goofiness, strange animals and butt-whupping warrior women. With Kelly Marie Tran voicing the sharp-tongued title character and Awkwafina amazingly inhabiting an adorably oddball water dragon, the film wrestles with tonal inconsistencies but features fantastic action scenes to go with a touching underlying narrative about the power of trust.
“Raya” is set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, where 500 years have passed since the harmonious coexistence of humans and dragons was tragically disrupted by the Druun, a mysterious race of purple globs with black smoke that turn living things into statues. The last of those dragons, Sisu (Awkwafina), was able to use a magical gem to save the day but then disappeared, and in the aftermath the humans broke into warring kingdoms.
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Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, left) teams up with legendary water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) in Disney's "Raya and the Last Dragon." (Photo: DISNEY)
When we first meet Raya (Tran), princess of Heart – one of the disparate lands named after dragon parts – she is a young girl who’s become a new guardian of the dragon gem. Her idealistic father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) yearns to unites the factions, but what’s meant to be a diplomatic reunion ends up creating even more of a divide, the gem is broken and an attack by the resurrected Druun leaves Benja a stone figure.
Six years later, Raya’s a stoic, untrusting nomad traveling with her roly-poly best friend/transport Tuk Tuk – part armadillo, part dog, part bug – to seek out Sisu, find all the pieces of the gem and save her dad. Once found, Sisu admits to Raya that she’s not the greatest dragon (“I’m a really strong swimmer!” she joyfully insists) yet agrees to help Raya in her quest. Their traveling party becomes a motley heroic crew, picking up a 10-year-old shrimp boat captain (Izaac Wang), a toddler con artist and a gruff lonely dude (Benedict Wong). They encounter various obstacles, including Namaari (Gemma Chan), Raya’s dangerous arch enemy from the Fang clan.
Namaari (Gemma Chan) is a dangerous warrior loyal to her land in "Raya and the Last Dragon." (Photo: DISNEY)
“Raya” shares a lot of its best aspects with fellow Disney cartoon “Moana,” especially when it comes to comedy and its central empowering journey. And because it’s not based on anything, the film sometimes feels remarkably original, although there are plenty of familiar fantasy themes and the occasional “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Star Wars” nod.
Each kingdom has its own individual charm: Fang features a bunch of classical-type structures built along water (a weakness for the Druun) while Talon has a bustling street-market vibe. The Southeast Asian influence is seen throughout Raya, from the locales to gorgeously rendered flying dragons.
Then there’s the amazing fight sequences. Raya’s blade attack comes from martial arts in the Philippines, Namaari’s fighting style is based on Muay Thai kickboxing, and their battles are more intense and vicious than expected from the Mouse House (in a good way).
The scuffles are pretty serious as is the genocidal presence of the Druun, which Sisu describes as “a plague born of human discord.” On the other hand, “Raya” has farting bugs whose toots explode. However, the film’s goofiness entertains more than it distracts.
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is a lone warrior seeking to save her people from monsters in "Raya and the Last Dragon." (Photo: DISNEY)
Tran at least gets a lot to say here – and a decent part – to make up for being underutilized in the last “Star Wars” movie. She nicely navigates the character’s lighter and darker sides, though her voice works a lot better for older Raya than her younger self.
The casting of Awkwafina as Sisu, though, is absolute perfection. She’s hilarious giving life to the character’s self-deprecating manner, in both dragon and human form, and also sells Sisu’s evolution from weak link to wise, confident heroine.
Watching her skip through the sky using her magic is as enjoyable as seeing Raya mosey into one of her thrilling, two-fisted, sword-swinging altercations. Together, they make “Last Dragon” a neat new entry to the fantasy-movie canon.
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