‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ continues the evolution of the Disney princess

The latest animated adventure from the studio is now playing in theaters, in addition to being available on a rental basis for Disney+ subscribers

Brad Keefe
"Raya and the Last Dragon."

Disney’s latest animated feature, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” is both a throwback and an evolution.

The story follows the classic Disney formula, tracing a familiar hero’s journey, complete with a comedic sidekick and shifting vistas that can showcase gorgeous animation. But it also reflects the evolution of our culture in both representation and what a “Disney princess” means in 2021.

As of late, Disney has been doing some needed reflection on its own past, including adding contextual warnings before a handful of episodes of the “The Muppet Show,” which recently started streaming on Disney+. Predictably, this decision was labeled an assault on tradition by those who love to stoke the culture wars, who claimed leftists were attempting to cancel Kermit.

Yes, somehow Disney “canceled” “The Muppet Show” by… making it available in its entirety on its global streaming platform?

The point being that “Raya” is a timely release in a culture that’s evolving, as well as a pretty solid execution of the Disney formula.

In the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived in harmony until the rise of monsters called the Druun, who spread like a virus and turned people to stone. A half-century earlier, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the humans, but the return of the Druun threatens the people of Kumandra again.

As a result, a young warrior named Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) sets out to find, you guessed it, the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina). An early betrayal also sets up Raya as a flawed hero who sets out on her own but must learn to trust again.

Maybe the most fair criticism of “Raya” would be that it does little to buck convention and formula. But there’s also something comforting and nostalgic in that. But this isn't a purely nostalgic exercise, featuring both overdue cultural representation and another strong lead for little girls, who shouldn't grow up looking for a man to sweep them away.

Co-writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim create a fantasy world steeped in South Asian culture, and the voice cast is almost exclusively Asian and Asian American, including Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong and Sandra Oh, among others.

Akwafina is a delightful addition to the proceedings, bringing to life a goofy and loveable dragon (that also takes human form).

But the most exciting voice acting is done by Tran, an actress finally getting some redemption for the bullying she and her character Rose Tico endured from the most toxic of “Star Wars” fans.

She makes Raya's a journey of strength and flaws and learning and, well, evolving.

Pushing two hours, "Raya" may feel a little overlong, but it’s also got some of the most gorgeous digital animation Disney has done yet (outside of the Pixar brand).

I can only imagine how beautiful those lush environmental details look on the big screen, as “Raya” is being simultaneously released in theaters and as an exclusive $19.99 rental for Disney+ subscribers.

I may be more forgiving of a few missteps due to the limited large-scale cinematic experiences allowed by this last year, but “Raya and the Last Dragon” was a delight. It's worth the rental or a masked-up theater t.

“Raya and the Last Dragon”

Now playing in theaters and for rental on Disney+

4 stars out of 5