The latest Disney animated adventure can be seen two ways: “Raya and the Last Dragon” offers another bold female lead from an underrepresented group and cute (in one case magical) sidekicks, embarking on a stirring quest. The deeper message, however, involves the toll that division and distrust inflicts on a mythical kingdom, which gives the otherwise pretty-good movie a rather timely hook.
Reading too much political subtext into this movie — which hits theaters in addition to Disney+, like “Mulan,” at a premium fee — won’t be a problem for the kids watching it. Yet the adults who join them might find something deeper in the themes, in a film that’s otherwise colorful, action-packed, and more than a little convoluted in setting up its premise.
Representing Disney animation’s first Southeast Asian heroine, the Raya of the title (pronounced “Rye-uh”) is as much a warrior as a princess, happily, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran of the recent “Star Wars” movies. She lays out the story in an opening narration, in which dragons fought off a threat 500 years earlier to the mythical kingdom of Kumandra, which subsequently split into five distinct lands.
Raya’s father (Daniel Dae Kim) remained in possession of a gem that held the last vestiges of the dragons’ magic, and dreamed of reuniting the kingdom. But those plans go awry, leaving a dystopian landscape that forces Raya to travel to each of the various lands — wary as they are of each other — to reunite the gem and restore harmony to their fractious world.
It’s a lot to digest, including the dragon of the title, Sisu, voiced with Eddie Murphy-in-“Mulan”-like energy by Awkwafina. The dragon promotes the idea of trusting others, but Raya has a bit of history with the princess of the Fang lands, Namaari (“Crazy Rich Asians'” Gemma Chan), who is every bit her equal in battle.
The aforementioned sidekicks are plentiful and in some instances quite fun, among them an extremely useful creature/mode of transportation known as Tuk Tuk (unintelligibly voiced by Alan Tudyk) and a thieving toddler. The dragon, alas, should be the centerpiece of the action, and the design is a little too cartoony and plush-toy friendly — less majestic and magical, at least most of the time, than simply kind of goofy.
As always, there’s some gorgeous imagery along the way, and a strong payoff after what amounts to the episodic nature of Raya’s journey. But the film feels too conspicuously like a work by committee than one of inspiration (the film credits four directors or co-directors, and 10 names as having contributed to the story), missing the spark that has characterized the studio’s best animated fare, including Pixar’s recent “Soul.”
In that sense, Raya’s challenge somewhat mirrors that of the film itself. The pieces are all there, but the true measure of success boils down to how well you put them together.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” premieres March 5 in theaters and for an extra fee that date on Disney+. It’s rated PG.