There’s been a predictable laze to much of Disney’s animated output in recent years, a staid reliance on the easy mass market appeal of the sequel. Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Frozen II: a production line of “more of the same” regurgitations that have made the few originals in the same period – Coco, Soul, Moana – feel that much greater in comparison. With the same studio also churning out Marvel and Star Wars follow-ups, prequels and adaptations at breathless pace, it’s made Disney feel more like a cold capitalist corporation than ever before.
The release of Raya and the Last Dragon is in no way going to reshape that broader view (Disney is after all a cold capitalist corporation) but it does serve as a reminder of the studio doing what it does best: transporting us to a beautifully crafted universe to tell a story that’s both involving and, vitally, fresh. It’s another victim of the pandemic, premiering in cinemas where possible but also on Disney+ with a lofty $30 price tag, a shame given the film’s lush visuals as well as its ability to prove that yet again, duh, diversity sells as its box office would have surely been substantial with enthused word of mouth propelling it long past opening weekend. It’s the story of Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a young girl who lives in the fragmented world of Kumandra, split into different warring clans after the evil Druun led to the sacrifice of the dragons they had all once lived peacefully alongside. After an attempt at peace ends in tragedy, years later as a teen, Raya finds herself on a dangerous quest to bring everyone together with the help of the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina).
Set in a fictionalised version of south-east Asia, the accompanying voice cast is made up almost entirely of actors of Asian descent (from Sandra Oh to Gemma Chan to Daniel Dae Kim) although there was some understandable frustration recently when people discovered that the actors are predominantly of east Asian heritage, a sign that for some at Disney, Asia is all the same. It’s an unfortunate misstep in what is otherwise another much-needed attempt at progress not just with its diverse cast and characters but also its positioning of a female lead. Raya is not only the driving force behind the action-led plot but she’s also without a love interest, focused on her family, her mission and her burgeoning friendship with Sisu. Tran’s steeliness is well-matched with Awkwafina’s brand of goofy comedy (she’s so well-suited to voice work that it makes sense she’ll be voicing a seagull in Disney’s upcoming Little Mermaid) and their buddy comedy back-and-forth is funny without bordering on the “this one’s for the adults” smugness that can often seep into post-Shrek animation.
It’s a stunningly intricate and immersive world and as Raya travels from clan to clan, directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada create unpredictable new elements for her to encounter, making it one of the most visually escapist Disney films for a good while. The design of the Druun is particularly effective, a horrifyingly undefined maelstrom of chaos, turning everything into stone, although I’d argue that the design of the dragons feels a little cheap in comparison to everything else, with Sisu looking a little too My Little Pony-adjacent to feel part of the awe-inspiring world around her. The script, from the Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter Adele Lim and playwright Qui Nguyen, like many Disney films, aims to offer some simple life lessons along with the adventure, urging unity over division and hope over fear, an interestingly timed plea as the US leaves the darkness of one presidency and aims to repair the wounds it’s deepened. Lim and Nguyen manage to infuse this message without it ever feeling preachy, in the same way that Inside Out could be used as a way of explaining mental health or Coco for death to a young viewer, there’s similar, if less potent, worth here with its view of politics. That might sound on paper a little too earnest but it’s handled with a light touch.
As with any form of quest narrative, there’s a familiar formula at play and as with any, especially latter-day, Disney animation, there’s a lurch toward the heartstrings in the finale. While some of the beats might be a little too predictable and while the emotional wallop at the end might be more of a gentle tap, Raya and the Last Dragon works for the most part, a charming, sweet-natured YA-leaning adventure that acts as proof that Disney needs to focus on moving forward rather than continuing to look back.