(KGET) — In many ways, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the latest animated offering from Disney Studios, goes back to the formula that has made so many of their movies work over the decades. At the heart of this incredibly crafted production is the simple story of good vs. evil.
How the good handles all that evil throws at them ends up being a story of hope, making it the kind of movie that feels so needed in this pandemic world. And, the combination of a simple story with dazzling visuals results in a movie designed to entertain one and all.
The story that has such a contemporary soul unfolds in the fantasy world of Kumandra, a place where humans and dragons once lived together. That ended 500 years ago when an evil force threatened to wipe out everyone.
All that saved the world was the sacrifice made by the dragons. When the world returned to normal, the dragons did not return and Kumandra eventually split into five warring factions. Their conflicts result in the breaking of the magic sphere that was protecting the world and it being scattered to the five regions.
The only chance of defeating the evil again is for the five pieces to be reunited. Raya – voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (“Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker”) – goes on a six-year quest to find the last living dragon who can help her collect the five pieces of the orb to save humanity again.
Trust is a major theme of the script written by Qui Nguyen (”Peg + Cat“) and Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”). Raya must learn to trust the motley group of strangers she meets along the way if she has any hope of saving the day.
It’s an odd group of heroes working beginning with the dragon Sisu – voiced by comic actress Awkwafina. Her role – like the work Robin Williams did with the Genie in “Aladdin” is to be a spiritual guide while supplying comic relief. Awkwafina brings a fun edge to the story but doesn’t have quite the same energy as Williams used to make his work as the Genie so memorable.
It is a slight weakness that those helping Raya are not the kind of supporting players who are strong enough to entertain on their own. Think of Olaf from the “Frozen” movies as the kind of character “Raya” needed.
Boun (Izaac Wang) is the young captain of a floating restaurant. Except for his kitchen skills, he’s rather flat. The same goes for the man mountain of Tong (Benedict Wong) who brings muscle and little more. The hedgehog-like Tuk Tuk (voiced by Alan Tudyk) comes the closest to being the breakout character but never completely reaches that level.
Having a misfit group of heroes collecting the five pieces of the sphere feels a little like the Avengers tracking down Infinity Stones. That’s OK as “Raya” is just as heavy on action scenes as those comic book-inspired films.
This lack of support doesn’t hurt the film because Raya and her arch nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan) are such strong characters. Both are equally powerful physically and mentally making their showdowns real highlights. The growth in their relationship is another strong element of the writing.
The real star is the stunning animation especially with the five distinct lands. The team under the direction of Don Hall (“Moana”) and Carlos López Estrada (“High & Mighty”) have magically mixed color, animation styles and visual elements to make “Raya and the Last Dragon” a feast for the eyes.
The only quibble is that they have given the dragons hair instead of scales. That certainly is not a big deal considering the overall majestic look of the movie.
“Raya and the Last Dragon’’ will be available on Disney+ with Premiere Access March 5. It’s great that the movie is being released but just like the debut of the live-action “Mulan” on the streaming service, “Raya and the Last Dragon” deserves to be seen on a big screen as it introduces another strong addition to the Disney princesses group.
“Raya and the Last Dragon”
(3 ½ stars)
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Gemma Chan.
Directors: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Rated: PG for violence, thematic elements
Running time: 108 minutes.