The chief antagonist in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” an enjoyable new adventure from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is something called the Druun, a shrieking, sludgy purple monster that turns people to stone. It’s an archetypal formless villain, a distant cousin of supernatural scourges like the Nothing from “The Neverending Story,” but it also carries a whiff of real-world metaphor.
No, the Druun isn’t the coronavirus, even if it does leave broken societies, devastated families and tribalist impulses in its wake. One character calls it “a plague born from human discord,” which is to say it’s yet one more crushing reminder that we have met the enemy and he is us. Or rather, she is us.
Women rule, literally and figuratively, in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” starting with Raya, an intrepid warrior princess whom we first see riding through the desert like a bamboo-hatted Mad Max. The Druun has devastated her homeland, but Raya, voiced with pluck and determination by Kelly Marie Tran (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), refuses to accept defeat. Armed with a powerful sword, an ancient scroll and a giant armadillo-like sidekick named Tuk Tuk (he’s her pet and her roly-poly mode of transport), she travels the fantastical realm of Kumandra in search of answers, carrying nothing less than the weight of humanity on her red-caped shoulders.
And also, at least temporarily, the weight of one of the world’s most recognizable family-entertainment brands. Arriving Friday, March 5, in theaters and as a premium offering for Disney+ subscribers, “Raya and the Last Dragon” marks the studio’s latest attempt to diversify its animated features for a global audience — something readily apparent from Raya’s Southeast Asian lineage, a first for a Disney protagonist. But it’s also apparent from the apocalyptic, world-saving nature of her quest: In these dark times, on-screen as well as off, “happily ever after” isn’t as simple a proposition as it used to be. Like Moana, Elsa and other 21st-century Disney heroines, Raya has more than romance or even self-actualization on her mind. And unlike them, she doesn’t even have time for a song.
Which is not to say that “Raya and the Last Dragon,” smoothly directed by Disney veteran Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and animation newcomer Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”), doesn’t make room for music, lightness and whimsy. Its vigorous sword fights and chase sequences play out over a lovely, catchy score composed by James Newton Howard. The story features the usual Disney complement of cute critters and likable supporting players, some of whom spout comic banter that hews more anachronistic than mythic. One of these is an aquamarine dragon, Sisu, who, awakened from a 500-year slumber, quickly becomes Raya’s bestie and part-time therapist: “Wow, you’ve really got some trust issues,” she says, before later adding, “C’mon, I got you, girl, who’s your dragon?”
Your dragon, in this case, is voiced by Awkwafina, as delightful and irrepressible a comic force here as she was in the live-action “Crazy Rich Asians.” (Adele Lim, one of that movie’s co-writers, also scripted this one, with Qui Nguyen.) Sisu hails from a lineage of glorious, multihued dragons who roamed Kumandra centuries earlier, and who inspired the names of its five kingdoms: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail. In keeping with Asian folklore, these dragons are not enemies but guardians of humanity, aligned less with fire than with the life-giving elements of water and air. And when the Druun first showed up and began their Medusa-like rampage, the dragons made the ultimate sacrifice, pouring their powers into a magical gem that banished the Druun and saved the world.
But the dragons themselves disappeared, and the foolish Kumandrans never learned from their mistakes. Near the beginning of “Raya and the Last Dragon,” their greed and infighting cause the precious Dragon Gem to shatter into pieces, allowing the Druun to return with a vengeance. After losing her noble chieftain father (Daniel Dae Kim) to the Druun’s unstoppable onslaught, Raya, princess of Heart, vows to recover the pieces of the gem — a mission that will find her happily resurrecting Sisu and making other friends along the way. They’re sweet if somewhat paint-by-numbers company: There’s a street-smart boy chef from Tail, a benevolent big lug from Spine and a light-fingered toddler from Talon.
Far more intriguing is Raya’s sworn enemy, the treacherous Fang princess Namaari (Gemma Chan), with whom she has, as they say, unfinished business.
The question at the heart of the movie is whether people at odds can ever learn to trust one another, let alone lay down their lives for one another, and submit to the realization that their fates are ultimately entwined. There are certainly worse lessons a movie could impart under present circumstances, and the filmmakers ponder it here with disarming sincerity and seriousness.
As with most of Disney’s past stabs at multiplex multiculturalism, the representational value of “Raya and the Last Dragon” will be lauded, debated and found wanting in roughly equal measure. (Some have already criticized the principal voice cast for featuring more actors of East Asian than Southeast Asian descent.) The movie is an ambitious, imperfect stew of cultural inspirations, in which sharp new flavors and textures jostle with flat, derivative ones. The specific pan-Asian details — a bowl of shrimp congee, a price paid in jade pieces — are amusing even when they brush up gently against stereotype. And the pleasing range of faces, skin tones and body types on display helps offset the anonymous quality that plagues even the most sophisticated three-dimensional character design.
The narrative skeleton is, if anything, even more generic, and also a reminder that the generic has its pleasures. The different regions of Kumandra may remind you of the various warring kingdoms of Westeros, or perhaps the houses of Hogwarts. Raya’s quest for scattered magic trinkets is, of course, a staple of fantasy literature, while some of the cavernous obstacle courses she must navigate are pure Indiana Jones. And Raya herself is an appealing amalgam of countless smart, unpretentious, down-to-earth action heroes before her — the kinds of characters that, as with this movie, you gravitate toward as much for their familiarity as for their novelty.