‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ review: An action-packed quest

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Running time: 114 minutes. Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements. In theaters and on Disney+ (for an extra charge) Friday.

The latest in dragontertainment is Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Hollywood loves a scaly scamp. There’s “Game of Thrones,” “Dragonheart,” “Pete’s Dragon,” the much better 2016 remake of “Pete’s Dragon” and the gold standard of fire-breathers, “How To Train Your Dragon,” one of the best CGI family films ever made.

There’s something so whimsical about a pet that can destroy all your enemies without lifting a claw.

“Raya,” which has a lot going for it, is not as emotionally involving as any of those other  films or TV shows. The title princess, Disney’s first Southeast Asian one, doesn’t bring on the tears during her moments of triumph, and the story gets lost in a geo-political struggle of feuding nations that tries too hard to be relevant. At times, I wondered, “Are we supposed to think this one is the EU?”

All that considered, Disney’s CGI work, independent from Pixar, has finally found consistency, and “Raya” joins “Frozen,” “Zootopia” and “Moana” on their roster of high-quality, enjoyable films.

There’s a lot of plot. Those warring states were once part of the land of Kumandra, a collective surrounding a dragon-shaped lake. The territories are called Heart, where Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is from, Talon, Fang, Tail and Spine. The map is the spitting image of the Revolutionary War “Join, or Die” flag, which every eight-year-old history buff will surely recognize.

Five hundred years earlier, all five peoples coexisted peacefully alongside colorful talking dragons whose magic brought them prosperity and such helpful items as water.

Then, a pack of vicious smoke monsters called the Droon swooped in and turned many of the citizens, and dragons, into stone. But one dragon called Sisu (Awkwafina) created a powerful gem to save the world.

At the start of “Raya,” the enemy peoples feud over the stone and smash it into five pieces, releasing the Droon once more and dooming the Kumandrans. It’s up to Raya to travel to each faraway land, put the stone back together and bring back her dad, who was frozen by the Droon, while picking up friends along the way.

All that exposition is daunting — not to mention it’s pretty much bizarro “Lord of the Rings” — but once we get the long history lesson over with, the film settles into “find the rocks.” Anybody can understand “find the rocks.” 

Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) teams up with Sisu the dragon (Awkwafina) to save the world in “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everest Collection

We skip to six years after the Droon disaster, when Raya summons Sisu to aid her on her heroic quest. Awkwafina voices the wisecracking lizard, who’s a lot like Eddie Murphy’s Mushu from “Mulan,” with a tad too much caffeine.

When Raya points out that Sisu’s skin is “glowing” with magic, she responds, “Thank you! I use aloe and river slime.” She’s here all night, folks.

All the jokes are along those lines.

They stick out, too, because Disney’s film really is an action movie more than the usual princess routine. Raya doesn’t have any coming-of-age experiences, she doesn’t sing, she’s not trying to please her father, there’s no romance subplot, nobody helps her get dressed. What there are are crossbows and swords.

And on that front, it is a success. The battles and missions in each separate place are visually exciting. One is a beautifully rendered Asian-style floating market, while another is a “Mad Max” desert, with Charlize Theron haircuts to match.

While the sappy ending isn’t as satisfying as it thinks it is, at least you’re still high on adrenaline.

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