For the first time in a long time, it feels like a moment for optimism. The pandemic seems to be abating, with vaccinations increasing; national leadership is suddenly considerably less insane. As we try to heal from so many societal wounds, mostly self-inflicted, it's understandable to long also for a healing of schisms. When we remain broken into fragments of mutual distrust and anger, what hope can we have?
That's the question posed by Raya and the Last Dragon, an animated fable that feels like it was developed with an eerie prescience: It's about a plague that can only be overcome by people refusing to stay stuck in ancient divisive grudges. But as well-intentioned as Raya's tale might be, it feels trapped by a kind of family-friendly simplicity. Reducing its moral to the equivalent of "can't we all just get along" winds up sacrificing any chance at truly insightful storytelling.
The mythology behind the story is so dense it requires multiple prologues before we get to the narrative proper. Long story short: Once upon a time, in the land of Kumandra, a plague called The Drune in the form of swirling purple clouds started turning people to stone, until a dragon named Sisu dispelled it with a magical stone. Five hundred years later, Kumandra is now split into five rival kingdoms, with the Heart kingdom and its royal family—Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) and his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran)—tasked with protecting the stone. But when a quarrel over the stone results in it fracturing, The Drune returns, sending Raya on a years-long journey to find and awaken Sisu (Awkwafina), and attempt to rejoin the fragments of the stone.
The quest structure allows for the gradual accumulation of traveling companions for Raya—an orphaned boy (Izaac Wang), a toddler being raised by thieving monkeys—until one character refers to them as a "fellowship of Drune butt-kickery." It makes for a lot of potential for characters to stand out, except that none of them really do, beyond a few moments for the monkey/toddler quartet that turn them into this movie's equivalent of the Madagascar penguins. Sisu proves particularly disappointing, with Awkwafina never finding a hook in the dragon who describes herself early on in a way that makes it seem she'll be kind of incompetent, though that personality—or necessary character arc—never really emerges.
That leaves a lot of weight on the shoulders of Raya herself, as well as her rival princess, Namaari (Gemma Chan). There's a solid center in that conflict, built on a personal betrayal that feels resonant whenever the screenplay leans into it. The animation in the battles between Raya and Namaari boasts an impressive physicality, growing ever more intense as the history between them grows more complicated.
It's here that the message of Raya and the Last Dragon should wind up delivering its knockout punch, except that it never evolves into anything deeper than what it looks like in the first act. Yes, it's clear that Benja's dream of reuniting Kumandra's warring factions—his preferred metaphor is a bowl of soup rather than a melting pot—collides with generations of jealousy and misunderstanding. And there's no question that victory over the Drune will ultimately require setting aside that history to work together. The process for getting from Point A to Point B, however, doesn't make a lot of sense, nor does the theoretical connection between the dragons' long-ago actions and the heroic actions required in this story's present. Raya takes it for granted that the right choice for a bright future is trusting those who have repeatedly acted out of selfishness—a notion that, in this historical moment, feels more than a little dicey.
There is, not surprisingly, a lot of lovely animation here, including geographical settings ranging from a desert of mushroom-shaped hoodoos to an ocean village, and fanciful scenes of the dragons dancing on raindrops. Also not surprisingly, that inventiveness often bumps up against the Disney-formulaic need for cute marketing-friendly characters, like the aforementioned monkey creatures or Raya's hybrid pill-bug/gopher sidekick Tuk Tuk. The real challenge in Raya and the Last Dragon is whether its vision for setting aside differences and coming together feels like a balm for the soul, or a misguided lecture. "Unity above all else" isn't quite the noble goal it's cracked up to be.