‘I’m not, like, the best dragon,” confesses one of the title characters in Disney’s new animated film Raya and the Last Dragon. Indeed not. Voiced by Awkwafina, the elongated lavender shape-shifting dragon-fish Sisu looks like an eel crossed with a feather duster, and she talks like an annoying TikTok teen. Sold separately through Disney+, this one is a third-tier production from the House of Mouse that seems more like an instance of performative “inclusiveness” and box-checking than the results of a story that was aching to be told.
The movie starts out well enough: The opening act is a factory-standard Disney mix of formula elements with bits of Lord of the Rings and Wonder Woman. We’re in a pre-modern China where the people and dragons once happily coexisted. Every dragon bar one died fighting the Druun, a malignant force that looks like angry purple tumbleweeds and turned most of the people to stone. Sisu, the very last dragon, gave its last breath to gather all dragon energy into the form of a magical gemstone that defeated the Druun and restored life to the stone people. Five hundred years later, stability has come about through hegemony: A single, benevolent tribe, Heart, owns the gemstone, and the stasis resembles what used to be known as Pax Americana.
As the film begins, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who was widely but not unfairly ridiculed for the role she played in the latest Star Wars movies) is a girl whose dad, Chief Benja, (Daniel Dae Kim) is the custodian of the gemstone coveted by all five tribes. In the spirit of idealistic liberals everywhere, Benja decides to throw away stability in favor of a kind of League of Nations gambit. “We were once unified harmoniously as one,” notes this supreme king. “If we don’t stop and learn to trust one another again, it’s only a matter of time before we tear each other apart.” Not surprisingly, when Benja invites his archrivals over for soup, they instead try to steal the gem, which is barely guarded and quickly gets broken into five pieces distributed to the various tribes, unleashing the Druun again, which turns most people back to stone. To undo her dad’s idiotic decisions, Raya has to bring the five pieces of the gem together. But she has help: It turns out that Sisu the dragon is not dead, merely resting.
The opening act seems to promise a kind of Asian Lion King, with a youngster dutifully inheriting the throne after treachery destroys the old man, but whatever mythic mojo there is in that opening act fizzles out when we meet Sisu the dragon. When it comes to playing scaly sidekicks, it turns out that Awkwafina is no Eddie Murphy. I’m not sure that even a comedy genius could have done much with Sisu’s lines — “I’m wicked when I hit that liquid. . . . I slaughter when I hit the water” and so on — but Awkwafina does not generate hilarity. And her steel-wool, Patty-and-Selma voice is abrasive to the ears. As much as I was praying for better jokes, I was also hoping someone would pass the dragon a lozenge.
As Raya, meanwhile, Tran has a perfectly pleasing voice but the character is a Mary Sue. Worse, she spends most of the movie functioning as the straight man for Sisu’s dumb jokes. Disney these days operates under tweet terror: Someone out there might remark that some aspect of a minority character represents an unflattering stereotype, so the company errs on the side of making such figures irredeemably dull. The movie’s sidekicks are even less interesting than the principals: Raya’s ride is some sort of mollusk-aardvark, a boringly obnoxious little boy is thrown in as a sop to the boys in the audience (or maybe just the obnoxious ones), and there’s a mischievous toddler that amounts to a poopy diaper of writing ability. Comic interludes range from the lame (everyone has a hard time with spicy food) to the very lame (Sisu goes on a shoplifting spree because she doesn’t understand the concept of credit). Efforts to maintain an atmosphere of medieval magic and wonder collapse under all of the suburban-teen-speak (“Using your baby charm to rip people off is super-sketchy.”). Somebody says, “I’m not Dang Hai. I’m Chai. The flower guy?”
The movie’s trust-your-enemies theme is so insipid I’m surprised Woodrow Wilson isn’t credited as one of the writers, although just about everybody else is (it took eight people to come up with this sludgy story), and the movie ends without even bothering to answer the question that got things going, which is who among the five tribes gets to control the single gemstone. None of this much matters, though. Since Disney can now throw another princess of color into its toy and book collections, this is a case of merchandising mission accomplished.