"I know what you’re thinking," says our heroine, Raya, while batting off advance doubts at the outset of Disney’s Southeast Asian foray.
Expectations of a Last Airbender/Moana mash-up preceded Disney’s 59th animated movie, but while Raya and the Last Dragon's meaty bundle of myth and martial arts hardly rewrites the Disney map, it does make rousing, dazzling work of relocating and refreshing it.
Kelly Marie Tran voices Raya, a young warrior on a quest to find a mythical dragon and restore peace to her splintered kingdom, Kumandra. Disney motifs emerge fast, gamely dispatched: cute critter sidekick (Alan Tudyk’s roller-ball pill bug/armadillo), naïve but brave lead... As for the merch-ready dragon, Sisu (an unmistakably droll Awkwafina) is Elsa (looks-wise), Anna (klutziness), and Maui (rhymes) in one.
Around her, the world-building, plotting and, action pop with lustrous detail and vigour. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada juggle genres nimbly, maxing the “butt-kickery” for Raya’s tussles with turncoat nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan) and finding room for a nifty heist-movie episode.
Even if the ground splinters underfoot during a cluttered climax, a Disney-grade message of unity against division firmly anchors the stirring aftermath. It might not venture into the unknown, but Raya takes spirited wing.