Raya and the Last Dragon PG. 114 minutes. 4 stars.
Joining the long line of Disney princesses that began with Snow White in 1937 and includes Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine and most recently Moana, we now welcome the action heroine Raya.
Early in the life of his company, Walt Disney had a hit list of classic children's stories he hoped to turn into animated films, and having ticked them off, many years ago, Disney's company has been developing original stories. 2016's Moana explored Polynesian mythology, and with this newest film they harvest ideas from South East Asian culture.
In the land of Kumandra, humans and dragons once lived alongside each other. The arrival of a race of monsters called the Druun ended this harmony, turning dragons and men alike into stone and separating the once-unified lands into five separate countries Heart, Fang, Tail, Talon and Spine - mistrustful of each other.
Daughter of Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), leader of the nation of Heart, is his princess daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). Raya is learning the fighting skills necessary to protect the dragon stone their family has sworn to defend. The stone contains the essence of Sisu, the last of the dragons who sacrificed itself 500 years earlier to kill the Druun.
Chief Benja tries to impart his dream of reuniting the five lands to his daughter when the dragon stone of broken and the ancient Druun is once again released.
Years later, an older Raya travels the five lands searching for the pieces of dragon stone and hoping that the last dragon could return to reunite the land.
The screenplay for Raya and the Last Dragon acknowledges two writers and a small army of 'story by' credits. Disney pulled together a team including historians of South East Asian history to compile a story honouring the lands now known as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. This geology-geek film critic was most excited that the fantasy land of Kumandra invented for the film and split apart by Duun-made climate change actually mirrors how the region would have looked during the last ice age. I also loved that the quirky critter support characters always present in Disney films are inspired by the region's long-extinct megafauna.
The screenplay is a road movie and caper heist with a handful of important messages, and Raya is the kind of resourceful and independent woman we all want our little princesses to grow up into.
The cast of voice actors are a who's-who of Hollywood's notable Asian performers, and most notable of them is Awkwafina, the gravel-voiced dynamo who the world fell in love with in Crazy Rich Asians.
In what is tonally quite a dark film, Awkwafina's voice work and her character Sisu's dialogue provided necessary light relief. Sisu is a bright blue fur-ball of gorgeousness and destined to be the hot children's toy for the coming year.
Other voice work worth noting comes from the young Isaac Wang (from the 2019 film Good Boys) whose orphan food vendor Boun is amongst the family Raya and Sisu draw around them as they quest to save their world.
Those performers, the South East Asian story, the new Disney Princess is going to mean the world to many hundreds of millions of kids who don't often see themselves reflected up on screen. Even though he's in his thirties now, my Sri Lankan partner had tears in his eyes as we sat in the opening night screening.
The animation work is interesting, drawing on shadow puppetry, classical Asian figures and symbols, alongside thoroughly modern animation. It's not the traditional cartoonish animation of early Disney and there are some scenes that are breathtaking, in the way that sweeping crane shot blew everyone's minds in Disney's 1991 film Beauty and the Beast.
As impressive as the film itself is the achievement of the film's crew of around 450 who finished the film working from home across the last year of the pandemic. Disney's IT department had to beef up their bandwidth substantially to allow the remote creativity, and the film's themes of isolation and working together carry resonance because of it.
Raya screens with the new Disney short film Us Again, a sweet up-tempo dance film.