Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon deserves to be a runaway hit. Disney cranks out great animated features on a regular basis, but this one is particularly exceptional. I wasn't sure we needed another animated movie about dragons, following three How to Train Your Dragon installments, not to mention stuff like Kung Fu Panda 3 and Shrek that feature the mystical creatures. Raya has a fresh take on the idea and it uses dragons in service of a potent story about the value of trust. Not once did I feel a sense of “been there, done that.”

The story begins with a little exposition about the kingdom of Kumandra, which was attacked by monsters called the Druun that turned most of the dragons and many of the humans into stone. Rather than banding together, Kumandra splintered into five tribes in the aftermath, each blaming the others for their shared misfortune. Now the Druun have returned, thanks to a bad choice young warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) made as a child. She dreams of finding a way to fulfill her father's dream of reuniting her kingdom in full.

In an effort to accomplish this, Raya tracks down Sisu (Awkwafina), the sole dragon to have survived the Druun attack. Sisu has been missing for so long that even she presumed she was dead. Once discovered, the two have to reassemble a magic orb, the pieces of which are scattered across the five tribes. The orb is the only known defense against the Druud. Pursuing them is Namaari (Gemma Chan), a warrior princess of the Fang tribe who wants the orb pieces for her own reasons. Raya and Sisu assemble a colorful, ragtag team of helpers in their quest, including the former's pet Tuk Tuk (an armadillo/pill bug combination), a precocious baby, a giant, and a 10-year-old entrepreneur.

Raya and the Last Dragon hits the bullseye on every count. At this point, it's become somewhat redundant to call any Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks animated movie gorgeous to look at. All have established themselves as pioneers of the format, pushing its boundaries with each new effort. That said, the cultural influences here add real flavor. Like the story itself, the visuals are inspired by Southeast Asian cultures. Directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carloz Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting) carefully integrate everything to make this world come alive.

Perfect voice casting adds to the impact. Kelly Marie Tran brings a lot of emotion to Raya. Through her efforts, we feel the character's guilt over the past incident that so gravely affected her people, as well as the fierce determination that drives her to correct the situation. As she did in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Tran shows a strong ability to play a believably heroic character without losing the relatable human side. Awkwafina, meanwhile, adds humor to the movie. She portrays Sisu as exuberant over getting rescued, then gradually transforms her into a knowing and loyal presence in the fight to heal Kumandra.

Best of all is the theme of trust that runs through Raya and the Last Dragon. Raya created the problem in Kumandra by trusting someone she shouldn't have. Doubting her own judgement, she now trusts no one. Eventually it becomes clear to her that the only way to reunite her people is to learn how to trust again. The movie pays that idea off in a powerful manner. A great message about believing in the fundamental decency of others lies underneath the adventure.

Raya and the Last Dragon has it all -- rousing adventure, a breathtaking look, appealing characters, and wonderful moments of comedy. This is peak Disney.

out of four

Raya and the Last Dragon is rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.