Digital animation has come a million miles since Toy Story put jaws on the floor in 1995. The proof of this lies in a film like Raya and the Last Dragon. It’s an intricate, vibrant work of art, right down to wavy strands of iridescent dragon fur and shimmering droplets of rainwater. All this visual mastery would’ve melted off faces a few years ago. Now? It’s, you know, pretty good. It’ll do. Raya has an engaging story, a talented voice cast, and an inspiring message. Oh, and millions of colors and billions of pixels. Unfortunately, this genre has set a high bar, and for all its strengths, Raya just barely clears it.
The story takes us to the ancient kingdom of Kumandra, a peaceful and prosperous land. That tranquility is threatened by the Druun, malevolent elementals who tear through the land and turn anyone in their path to stone. Thankfully, Kumandra has a clan of dragon protectors, who unite their magic to ward off the monstrous threat. Unfortunately, in that process, the dragons get transformed into stone, thus robbing the kingdom of its powerful bodyguards. The ensuing struggle for a dragon artifact rips the kingdom apart, creating five smaller territories who all covet the artifact and its bottled magic.
Chief Benja (voice of Daniel Dae Kim) leads the Heart tribe. He trains his headstrong daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Train) to safeguard the dragonstone, while also holding out hope the fractured nation will eventually reunite. Benja invites the disparate leaders for a summit on that very topic, but a betrayal leads to the shattering of the artifact and a Druun invasion.
With that, Raya goes the way of a hundred other Disney heroes and strikes out on her own. She searches the land for Sisu, the only dragon who survived the original Druun assault. As the posters and trailers suggest, Raya eventually finds Sisu (Awkwafina), who turns out to have a plucky, wisecracking attitude. And, also in true Disney fashion, Raya and Sisu make unlikely buddies along their journey, learn a few life lessons, and gear up for the big scrap with the Druun.
So you see, for all its eye-popping wonder, Raya still follows a familiar formula. Anyone who’s sat through enough of these movies will spot the plot points a mile away. But that also doesn’t mean that any of this is bad. They’ve made 22 Bond movies with pretty much the same structure because it works. At this point, we’re a year-plus into a lousy pandemic, so watching a spunky, resourceful young girl unite the world through dragon magic almost feels like cinematic comfort food.
And that’s the thing: For all its lavish production, Raya and the Last Dragon is just solid entertainment. Tran and Awkwafina form a nice buddy dynamic. Alan Tudyk is fun as Tuk Tuk, Raya’s sidekick who’s a…giant pillbug, I guess? Benedict Wong brings a balance of wackiness and nobility to Tong, the last warrior standing from his tribe. As you might guess, these actors all have extensive backgrounds in comedy, and they do a great job keeping Raya light-hearted and fun. Go into this film expecting exactly that, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. 107 min. PG. Disney+ Premium.