Popular culture hasn't always represented dragons as the nicest creatures. They spit fire, kill like machines and eat innocent people. However, over the past few years films like How To Train Your Dragon have tried to humanise these enormous, larger-than-life creatures. Raya and the Last Dragon does that too. It does it very, very well.
The plot is simple: a warrior from a fallen kingdom goes out on a mission to restore the pieces of a gem that can bring back harmony between the kingdoms of her extinct utopia, Kumandra. Unlike Disney's recent animated features such as the lovely Soul and even Inside Out, Raya and the Last Dragon isn't a subtext-heavy film. However, it is skilfully executed with poise and panache, which make it consistently engaging and attractive. Every frame is a treat to look at, every colour pops.
The beginning is shaky. Several portions feel inert and the exposition crams in more information than most films do throughout their entire runtime. The opening especially makes you feel like this is going to be yet another generic message movie for children. However, the film's technical finesse makes sure that you're never bored. So even when you feel like you've seen this before, it's hard to look away. After a masterful sequence in which Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) meets Sisu the dragon (voiced by an excellent Awkwafina), the story gathers momentum and maintains a solid grip. What follows are some endearing characters that propel the heartfelt screenplay by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim.
The voice cast is splendid. Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina give their characters a lived-in depth that is instantly heartwarming. Raya is sometimes foolish and even selfish, but her inherent goodness makes you root for her almost immediately. She's a worthy addition to Disney's reinvented princesses: girls who have agency and a voice. But the film's trump card is Sisu, who's probably the most charming dragon in the history of animated cinema.
Even characters with less screen time, such as Noi the con-baby and Tong, make a place in your heart because of the smart writing. They may lack depth, but I was willing to settle with the surface-level cutesiness just because of how eloquently directors Don Hall and Carloz López Estrada have handled it. Even the action is thrilling: you know exactly how everything is going to end but I was still on the edge of my seat throughout. The film has a few niggling problems, such as its predictability. The "villians", too, feel a little one-dimensional. But these are passing clouds in a film that is all sunshine.
Raya and the Last Dragon also carries some beautiful messages about the ideas of trust. Almost all Disney movies come with similar messages about love and kindness, but here they never overtake the storytelling. In fact, in times like these, the film's wholesome emotional core feels like a tight, warm hug. It made me ponder the movie's ideas of placing faith in others and yourself. The film's borderline-cheesy, happily-ever-after ending left me with a smile, and for now, I'm more than willing to settle for that.