Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) has long heard the stories of the last dragon from her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). As an evil force forced its way through the land, turning people to stone, the magical dragons joined forces in one stone and one named Sisu used it to stop the ongoing apocalypse. She sacrificed herself in the process, although rumors persist that she survived. This stone resides with the people of Benja and Raya when the movie begins, but the other clans of the now divided world steal it, shatter it to pieces, and scatter it across the land.
Years later, Raya sets out in search of Sisu (Awkafina) and the Stone Fragments, trying to bring her people together and realize her father’s vision of loyalty. Along the way, they are pursued by the princess of a clan seeking full power named Namaari (Gemma Chan), and meet several memorable support characters, including the gregarious Boun (Izaac Wang), the one-eyed Tong (Benedict Wong). and even a “con baby”, a kid who uses his undeniable cuteness like an alley crook. All of these animated characters have been touched by the fragmentation of the stone, and they form an unforgettable core in what is essentially an old-fashioned adventure film reminiscent of everything from Indiana Jones to “Princess Mononoke.”
Directors Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”) imbue every element of the design of “Raya and the Last Dragon” with first-rate craftsmanship. Each of the lands Raya and her compatriots travel to feel like fully realized worlds. Watch the streets where Raya meets the baby and her monkeys in the crime – they’re filled with bustling life and background details that many movies like this simply ignore. And then there’s the character design, which is much more carefully considered than most modern blockbuster animations, especially the gorgeous look of Sisu and her fellow dragons. Yes, she looks a lot like the dragons we’ve seen in Asian cinema before – it’s hard not to think of ‘Spirited Away’ when she takes on her own form of flight – but she ultimately makes it on her own, in part thanks to the how her design blends in with Awkwafina’s fantastic voice work. It is expressive without being too caricature. Everything “Raya” has going for it – a vibrant color palette and a remarkable level of detail that never pushes too far into the fantastic elements, striking the perfect balance.