Raya and the Last Dragon premiered Friday the 5th on Disney+. March, with perhaps the best credits you could wish for in the midst of a pandemic: the season finale of WandaVision (which was also released in theaters the same day, if you’re into that). You’ll find out what this is all about later, but first we can take a moment to celebrate Raya’s accidental success.

In terms of content, the film is an important step in the right direction for a studio long plagued by accusations of a lack of diversity and representation in its films. Here, Disney has paid homage to Southeast Asian culture and mythology with a story rooted in the confluence of those cultures, assembled an exceptional ensemble of Asian voices, and applied that achievement to its newest and most time-tested formula for a heroine adventure story. The result is a film that allows an entire generation of children to recognize themselves on screen in our lovable title character, and a culturally impactful story that is forever canonized in the Disney archives.

The result is an entertaining, but ultimately flawed film. But it’s worth accepting it as a success, with all its imperfections. Not every socially conscious horror film will be Get Out, and not every quirky love story will be Portrait of a Woman on Fire. And if we make every great movie a masterpiece, we’ll get fewer of them, not more. Let’s hope that Raija’s relatively haphazard release – from a good and not-so-good family film to an outrageous marketing campaign – means that Disney intends to make representation the norm in its future line of animated films.

All right, Tuk-Tuk Hive, let’s do it.

Welcome to Kumandra

Raya and the Last Dragon follows our titular warrior princess (played by Kelly Marie Tran) to a divided land once united as Kumandra. After a long-dormant evil plague is released from its home base of Hart and spreads to the other lands of Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail, Raya sets out to find the last living dragon, the only one who can banish evil from the land one more time. What follows is an adventure through the world with memorable characters we meet along the way (including, yep, an imposter), a rich treat for the senses, and a touching central message about trusting others and what we lose when we can’t. There’s also the Tuk Tuk, a giant armadillo/pill hybrid that I would die for.

Walt Disney Studios

Heart of the slide

All the elements you’d expect from a Disney movie are here.

The animation and visuals are stunning, the film immerses us in rich landscapes and varied, colorful settings that manage to convince you that there is a huge world in the story. For that reason alone, it’s a more successful celebration of a region of the world than, say, Disney’s disaster of Mulan in 2020 (here I’d point out the brownish color palette and the final battle scene at the abandoned construction site if I were interested enough to talk about that movie). So it has more in common with recent princess-free titles Wreck-It-Ralph and Big Hero 6 than it does with Tangled or Frozen. Like these films, Raya approaches her sense of place with an innovative imagination and bold, brilliant ideas that not only look at how something should look, but redefine how it could look.

The sound is also a strong point of this film, which I didn’t expect from a Disney film without musical numbers. Whatever this film has to gain from the eleventh hour number, the score does come out on top. James Newton Howard, who previously composed the music for Disney from 2000 to 2002 with Dinosaur Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet provide a beautiful, unique and sometimes breathtaking adventure game here.

The dubbing work is skillful, highlighting the excellent performances of Kelly Marie Tran, Gemma Chan and Benedict Wong. But Awkwafin’s extraordinary voice as the last dragon of Sisu. Like Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy before her, her voice is such that you’re enthralled by every word and beat, even if her presence means you’re never really drawn into the film. Sometimes I’m not sure if his sentences and characterizations fit with the rest of the story, but it almost doesn’t matter. She’s just really nice.

Tail end defects

The unfortunate element of Raya and the Last Dragon for me is the story itself. The script contains a rich and original mythology (inspired by Southeast Asian legends and, perhaps less so, Avatar: The Last Airbender). And she manages to pull you into her story in such an ingenious way that you desperately hope it’s worth it. But as the end approaches and plot holes pop up, questions go unanswered, obvious solutions are found too easily, and a constantly bloated cast distracts from the central struggle, it becomes clear that the writers were too ambitious for the scope of a 107-minute animated film.

And that brings us back to my connection with WandaVision, another Disney property that was very ambitious in scope and promised to leave me with an empty feeling at the end. Disney is a company that has goals beyond this movie. Just as WandaVision often felt like a series of pilots hijacked to other series and films, I wondered if the characters and world Raya built were as much a vehicle for merchandising and theme park content as they were for telling a unique story. If this is indeed the case, there’s nothing wrong with the film juggling multiple targets. You just hope he can score on the most important.

End of sentence

Despite the clunky Disney fairy tale plot, Raya and the Last Dragon is predictable entertainment. The adventurous and fun aspect of the watch is worth it, and I imagine the kids will demand it more than once (see: tuk tuk). It’s essentially a renewed celebration of culture and an overall attempt to tell a story that almost feels like a first for the studio. I trust Disney will not let this be the last time.

Follow @MovieBabble_ and Jack Edgar @JedgarAllenPoe on Twitter.

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