It’s a cliché at this point to say this movie or that hits different during a pandemic — but, well, sometimes clichés are clichés because they’re true. I’ve no doubt Raya and the Last Dragon would have been a crowdpleaser under any circumstances, with its endearing characters, high-speed action, beautiful vistas, and Disney-perfected combination of cute comedy and sincere drama. But its not-so-subtle theme of trying to find trust in a cynical world can’t help but wring a few extra tears in difficult times.
As explained in an animated prologue whose striking style nods to the film’s Southeast Asian inspirations, Raya unfolds some 500 years after the last surviving dragon, Sisu, saved the land of Kumandra from a rampaging plague that turned everything it touched to stone. Rather than rejoice in their shared salvation, however, the people of Kumandra turned against each other, eventually splitting into five nations constantly regarding each other with suspicion. When the plague suddenly returns, warrior princess Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) strikes out on a quest to save her family by finding Sisu in hopes she can stop it again.
As much as Raya fancies herself a lone rider, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ shines brighter as its ensemble gets larger.
Raya sits comfortably alongside other recent Disney princesses — Moana, Elsa, and Anna, Vanellope von Schweetz — who’ve veered away from classic fairy tale tropes in search of more expansive adventures on the horizon; all she’s missing is an earworm-y “I Want” song of her own. Raya’s Rose Tico-ish mix of grounded warmth and steely determination make her a hero who’s easy to root for, a solid core that anchors the film even as scenes regularly get stolen by the more colorful supporting characters around her.
Like Tong (Benedict Wong, invariably one of the brightest spots in any movie lucky enough to have him), a fierce guard whose barely concealed loneliness feels all too relatable right now. Or Sisu herself (Awkwafina), who looks like an extra-long, extra-fuzzy My Little Pony and radiates disarming little-sister energy. There are also multiple characters designed to provoke reflexive awws, including a toddler con artist (Thalia Tran) named Little Noi and an enormous pill bug named Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) who seems destined for “season’s hottest toy” status.
These characters are added gradually, and as much as Raya fancies herself a lone rider, Raya itself shines brighter as the ensemble gets larger. It feels almost a pity when the movie ends and we have to say goodbye to the whole gang before we got to see them do still more fun stuff. Still, the film stuffs plenty into the 107 minutes (including 12 minutes of closing credits) we do get with them. There are wild chases and epic swordfights. There are moments of unexpected levity and quiet grief. (Again: very 2021.) And there are stops at all five nations, each with a distinctive enough feels to hint at a fuller world, even if all we get is a glimpse.
It’s easy enough to guess from the get-go where this is all headed, and in case you’re still struggling to keep up, Raya has a habit of repeating pertinent plot points or explaining scenes we just saw. Fortunately, the journey isn’t all that much less enjoyable for being somewhat predictable — if anything, there’s satisfaction in its tidiness, like clicking together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
And when they do come together at the end, Raya reaches new heights (with a soaring musical theme to match). The idea that trust is the key to a better world isn’t exactly new, and this film not exactly subtle about it; the characters explicitly give voice to it multiple times. But it works as it’s executed here, with clarity and compassion. Raya understands just how big an ask trust can be if you’ve been burned before — and in between its playful shenanigans and zippy action sequences, it extends to the despairing a gentle reminder to hope, to heal, to reach out to others, and try to become whole again.
Raya and the Last Dragon is in theaters and on Disney+ March 5.