One of Disney Animation’s great strengths is its ability to transport an audience to anywhere in world history – from medieval Europe in Sleeping Beauty to Arabian markets in Aladdin and ancient Polynesia in Moana – which is why its recent insistence on sequels (Ralph Wrecks the Internet and Frozen 2) has been rather disappointing. Thankfully, with Raya and the Last Dragon, the studio has renewed its commitment to building fascinating, beautiful new worlds, this time taking us to a mystical spin on South East Asia for a gorgeous, if rather by-the-numbers, adventure.
We first meet Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) in the midst of a vital quest. Journeying through desert ruins, she’s looking for evidence of the last dragon in her homeland of Kumandra, the only being with the power to drive out the destructive force of the Druun, a group of violent energy beings that have turned most of the kingdom’s people to stone. Through a combination of voiceover and slick animation, Raya and the Last Dragon makes quick, efficient work of setting this scene, but the rest of the film’s opening is made up of a flashback to Raya’s childhood, which slows things down considerably.
All the fleet-footed worldbuilding gives way to lumpy, drawn-out exposition as we meet the key players as they were before the Druun’s destruction. This segment goes on for far too long, which is made all the more conspicuous by how fast the story moves later in the film without sacrificing any of the depth of these early scenes. The film’s on far sturdier ground once we’re back into Raya’s mission, with a sense of fun and wonder both in its stunning visuals and in the voice performance of Awkwafina as the titular last dragon, Sisu.
She’s definitely riffing on both Eddie Murphy as Mulan’s Mushu and Robin Williams’s game-changing Aladdin Genie, but brings her own unique playful gravitas, shining brightly without upstaging the rest of the film as Murphy and, especially, Williams each did. Sisu is such a joyous character that I ended up wishing that she had a musical number, but Raya and the Last Dragon is entirely song-less.
Instead, its showstopping set-pieces take the form of wuxia-inspired fight scenes as characters lay into one another with swords, staffs, and fists. The best of these surprisingly intense battles come whenever Raya encounters her old rival Namaari (Gemma Chan), years of resentment and hatred expressed through combat. Slick animation and imaginative, punchy fight direction make for some of the best blockbuster action scenes in a long while, even if none of the individual bouts has the same staying power as the best Disney songs.
With its Macguffin-y story (be prepared for a lot of glowing crystals as Raya and Sisu try to resurrect the rest of the dragons) and slow start, Raya and the Last Dragon probably won’t live as long in the memory as the most iconic recent Disney animations. Yet, thanks to great action scenes, a lovable supporting cast (Benedict Wong is a particular delight as hulking but sensitive warrior Tong), and luscious backdrops, it should keep younger audiences glued to their seats whilst introducing wider audiences to a rich new world of mythology in the way that only Disney can.