The 59th Disney Animated feature film “Raya and the Last Dragon” is one of only about a half-dozen from that last that showcases a little diversity.
Featuring almost entirely non-white characters, it’s gorgeous, and enormously refreshing. It relies on a pretty worn-out old fantasy plot about a quest to find the pieces of the broken magical whatsis, but its positives handily outweigh that negative.
The movie opens Friday in some theaters and on Disney+ for users who purchase “Premier Access” status for $29.99. But on June 4, it will be available to regular subscribers at no added cost.
“Raya,” as is the case with many fantasy films, begins with a generous dash of exposition. It’s set in the fictional Southeast Asian realm of Kumandra. Five hundred years ago, humans lived in harmony with dragons and all was well.
Then, evil creatures called the Druun attacked, turning humans to stone. The dragons banded together and defeated the Druun, but in the process were wiped out, except one last dragon, called Sisu.
The dragon’s essence was contained in a glowing magical ball which was meant to unite the people. Instead, they split into five warring tribes, each named after dragon parts: Heart, Fang, Tail, Spine and Talon.
Centuries later, the scrappy young Raya, princess of the Heart realm, tries to prove to her father (Daniel Dae Kim, of “Lost”) — the current guardian of the ball — that she has what it takes to help out.
Unfortunately, her actions lead to the ball shattering into five chunks, bringing back the Druun. Raya’s father is turned to stone, and she makes a new enemy: Namaari, princess of the Fang realm.
Five years later, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) has turned into a Mad Max-like warrior princess, scouring the wastelands for ways to bring her father back, riding atop of her giant pill bug, Tuk Tuk (whose adorable click-y sounds were provided by Alan Tudyk).
She miraculously finds and frees Sisu (Awkwafina, of “The Farewell”), who turns out to be less of a warrior dragon than Raya hoped. Her dragon power? She’s a really good swimmer.
On their quest to put the ball thingee back together, the pair assembles a ragtag crew of helpers. There’s soft-spoken giant Tong (Benedict Wong, of “Doctor Strange”), the zippy 10-year-old Boun (Izaac Wang), who operates his own floating restaurant; and Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a baby pickpocket and her team of helper Ongis (described by the Disney Wiki as half-monkey, half-catfish).
They also meet the now-grown-up, and very badass Namaari (Gemma Chan, of “Crazy Rich Asians”), who wants to control the dragon power herself.
Fantasy tales can get lost in their myriad of characters, backstories, and situations, but as helmed by directors Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”) and Don Hall (“Winnie the Pooh,” “Big Hero 6”) — and with a screenplay by more writers than space allows listing — “Raya and the Last Dragon” moves briskly and cleanly.
It has swift, balletic battle scenes, and soaring, agile dragon-flight sequences that rival anything in the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise.
However, it could have used a bit more punch in the “sense of wonder” department. Collecting the pieces of a thingamajig is a fairly ancient plot device, and it’s basically a countdown rather than an awe-inspiring exploration.
The movie is also a little light on laughs. Nutty, sweet Awkwafina certainly keeps things lighthearted, but she rarely lands a spectacular joke. Oddly, the funniest character is arguably the ninja-like pickpocket baby, looking vaguely perturbed as she performs amazing, zigzagging feats of circus-like acrobatics.
Perhaps, though, the movie doesn’t actually need to strain for laughs. Awkwafina’s Sisu serves a far different purpose in this film than, say, Eddie Murphy’s Mushu did in Disney’s 1995 “Mulan.” She’s essential, and not just a silly sidekick.
What “Raya and the Last Dragon” has going for it is its sense of confidence, and its goodness. The idea of bringing back together splintered and deeply dissenting factions of society is an appealing and moving prospect right about now.
No, this is a film about pride — pride in both families and in cultures — and about hope.
It takes its place alongside “Mulan,” 2001’s “Lilo & Stitch,” 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog,” and 2016’s “Moana” as a game-changer, a chance to see different faces and hear different voices in a big animated Disney film. It’s further proof that stories about non-whites are indeed universal.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Starring: Voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim
Written by: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim (based on a story by Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Adele Lim, Carlos López Estrada, Kiel Murray, Qui Nguyen, John Ripa and Dean Wellins)
Directed by: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes