Disney's greatest blessing is also, sometimes, its curse – comforting familiarity. The reason the Mouse House's movies fly so high at the box office and work so well for audiences of all ages is that they trade in formulaic structures and archetypal characters we know on a basic level before we even meet them. But at the same time, this is a criticism often levelled at some of the less impressive works to emerge from the Disney sausage machine. Are their original stories actually original enough? Raya and the Last Dragon is certainly pitched well within the Disney formula – a princess-based tale of heroism – but it's also a monster step up in epic scale and action spectacle.
The Raya of the title, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran – Star Wars actor and favoured target of racist manbabies – is an accomplished and fierce warrior princess. She lives in one of the five lands of what was once the united nation of Kumandra, prior to a schism caused by the invasion of malevolent beasties known as the Druun, which can turn people into stone forever. The dense fantasy exposition comes thick and fast, with screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim getting the narrative moving pretty quickly – perhaps before you've fully worked out how this society operates and what's going on.
Raya's father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), is the chief of the Heart Land and responsible for guarding the Dragon Gem – the last fragment of the magic of the dragons who sacrificed themselves to save humanity during the invasion. Internecine scuffling between the five lands damages the Dragon Gem and revives the Druun, sending Raya off on a vital quest – after a six-year flash forward – to search for the truth in rumours that one dragon may still be alive. As the title suggests, it isn't long until Raya meets Sisu (Awkwafina) – an awkward, water-loving creature who confesses she's not the best dragon and previously relied on her more capable siblings to do much of the tough, magicky stuff.
Sisu is immediately a top-tier Disney creation. Awkwafina's whirlwind comic energy is a perfect fit for the role of a slightly naff magical critter who, like Paddington Bear, sees the inherent good in absolutely everybody. She stands in stark contrast to Tran's stoic, troubled Raya – someone who believes that the world is broken and you can't trust anyone. Raya has spent the six years since the Druun returned engaging in a quest through a sort of Mad Max dystopia, honing her survival skills and warrior's instinct in a way that has minimised some of her humanity. With the help of Sisu, she recovers that emotion and that heart over the course of the story. Both voice performers excel at conveying the troubles and complexities of these characters, even as they slot into fairly recognised types and personalities.
Raya and the Last Dragon also boasts a colourful supporting cast, with the two leads accompanied by a ragtag bunch of supporting characters as they attempt to reunite Kumandra and fight off the Druun. Izaac Wang steals scenes as orphan teenager Boun – a sort of seafaring, pre-pubescent Del Boy – while Benedict Wong brings real depth to the initially generic warrior giant Tong and there's a con artist toddler named Noi causing plenty of slapstick chaos.
The movie's other huge asset is the sheer quality of its visual filmmaking. Directed by Disney veteran Don Hall and Blindspotting helmer Carlos López Estrada – with Paul Briggs and John Ripa credited as co-directors – this is a sweeping action epic. The fight scenes have a crunching energy to them uncommon to Disney movies, as well as incredible, kinetic athleticism from the characters. Specifically, a late in the day clash between Raya and rival Namaari (Gemma Chan) has the wuxia-inspired sense of violent fun that powered many of the best portions of last year's live-action Mulan. This is Disney doing Game of Thrones, and its action sequences are breathless, brilliant flurries of pure spectacle.
On a character front, sadly, things are more conventional. These are archetypes we have seen before, almost to a distracting extent. Five years after Moana joked that if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess, it's almost absurd to see that archetype play out so clearly in Raya and her pill bug buddy Tuk Tuk (voiced by Disney lucky charm Alan Tudyk). Notably, though, Raya's attire is much more battle-ready than ball gown. The character too feels standard in that she is driven by grief around the loss of a family member – an impulse Disney just can't shake – and is betrayed by a friend, just like so many other Disney heroines. At least there's no shoe-horned romance plotline. That's a real blessing.
So while Raya and the Last Dragon is a long way from being the peak of what Disney can achieve when it's firing on all cylinders with its animated classics, it's a solid and enjoyable blockbuster, not to mention a rare example of an East Asian story told via predominantly East Asian actors. As well as being a step forward for representation, it's yet another leap forward in terms of what animation can accomplish visually when it stretches beyond the obvious world of princesses, talking animals and princesses accompanied by talking animals. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it has a great time spinning it.