Equal parts charming, empowering, and epic, this Southeast Asia-inspired adventure introduces the next great Disney warrior princess to join the likes of Moana, Merida, and Mulan. The thorough prologue establishes the world of Kumandra and the battle between the dragons, the humans, and the Druun. Raya and Sisu get a lot of help on their mission from the various locals they incorporate into their circle: young Boun (Izaac Wang), the chef/boat captain from Tail; baby Noi (Thalia Tran), a Talonese pickpocket toddler whose monkey squad will delight younger viewers; and Tong (Benedict Wong), an intimidating but kind warrior from Spine. They band together to protect Sisu (who can shape-shift into a woman who looks more than a little like Awkwafina) and find a way to defeat the Druun.
The movie's bursts of peril and moments of grief are balanced by a lot of levity (little Noi is hilarious, and Sisu, like the comedian who plays her, is irresistibly charming) and heart. Humor is threaded throughout Raya and the Last Dragon, and Tuk Tuk is an adorable animal sidekick. There's no romance in the movie, which focuses instead on the "found family" that Raya and Sisu create with their new friends. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, along with the screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, manage to make the characters' orphanhood a touching statement about loss -- it surrounds every character and drives Raya forward to do everything she can to free her father from his stone cage. While this isn't a musical, James Newton Howard's evocative score is fantastic, and the animation is so detailed and stellar that families may find themselves pausing and rewinding just to take in the diversity of landscapes, costumes, and characters. Once again, Disney has managed to take the familiar and make it magical.