The titular princess of Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), hasn’t been officially canonized as a Disney princess yet. For the uninitiated, Disney princess is a very specific term. Our mousey multimedia overlords assiduously protect their intellectual property — even Elsa and Anna of “Frozen,” far too profitable in their own right, aren’t “official” Disney princesses. Will Raya join the ranks of Snow White, Cinderella and the rest? Or will the film morph into another mega-franchise that transcends such trivialities?
But what’s all this corporate mumbo-jumbo talk anyway? Raya is a daughter of a monarch. She’s got a cuddly animal sidekick. Magic stuff happens. It’s a Disney movie. If it quacks like a Disney princess, and it walks like a Disney princess, it’s a Disney princess — whatever the damned mouse in the sky says.
In truth, “Raya,” the first original Disney princess movie since “Moana,” does break from its predecessors in notable ways: It’s not a musical. No mournfully staring into pools of water and spontaneously breaking into song. Instead, it’s a richly imagined fantasy land inspired by the cultures and folklore of Southeast Asia.
Also, it’s post-apocalyptic.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is set in the land of Kumandra. The first few minutes are a classic bit of stylized exposition dump: Once upon a time, Kumandra was a happy land. Dragons danced around and made it rain; people got along. Then one day, a bunch of purple blobby clouds started turning people to stone. The last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina, “The Farewell”), pours all her magic dragon-ness into a shimmery orb and uses it to banish the smoke monsters and save humanity from the brink of extinction. Rather than celebrate, the people of the world take up arms for ownership of this shimmery orb, and thus the world is fractured into five nations each named after the bodily bits of a dragon.
Fast forward a few hundred years and someone breaks the shiny rock, bringing the purple smoke monsters back. But this time, there are no dragons. Thus ensues Raya’s quest: Find the last dragon.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is a visual feast, as has become a given with Disney princess movies. Bold colors, a perfect balance between realistic and cartoonish styles, that really nice water animation they developed for “Moana” — it’s all there.
But what sets the movie apart is its attention to detail. Bustling marketplaces. Gelid bamboo forests. Statue-dotted wastelands. All are vividly realized and chocked full of details and adornments that will most certainly reward repeated viewings. This specificity of style extends beyond setting to include costuming and character design, from Raya’s pragmatic wasteland outfit to the chimeric form of Sisu, who is not a scaly winged beast like Western audiences have come to expect, but a vaguely piscine, delicately furred serpentine creature that evokes equal parts “My Little Pony” and Haku from “Spirited Away.”
The animation and design might outpace the story though. “Raya and the Last Dragon” doesn’t do a lot wrong, per se. It’s your classic MacGuffin marathon movie: travel from A to B and B to C collecting magical gems to save the world. Along the way, pick up some woebegone strays and form a makeshift family. After all, the real magical gems are the friends you made along the way. Add in some debates about trust and soliloquies about unity, and you’ve got “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
Unfortunately, these gems-of-friends aren’t as dazzling as the MacGuffins they’re after or the themes they try to shoulder. Each of them is fun and charming — Benedict Wong (“Nine Days”) is as charismatic as ever as Tong, a monocular ax-wielding warrior; child actor Izaac Wang (“Think Like A Dog”) voices restaurateur street kid Boun and Thalia Tran (“Council of Dads”) rounds out the crew as a slapstick con-baby capable of age-defying feats of parkour. They’ve each got their zingers and wisps of melancholia (every member of their motley crew has lost their families), but the familial cohesion that the film’s themes hinge on is perfunctory. Similarly, the most interesting thing about the film’s antagonist, a rival-nation warrior by the name of Namaari (Gemma Chan, “Let Them All Talk”), is that she and Raya’s rivalry is almost — not quite, but almost — galvanized with a romantic charge.
But at the end of the day, the film is still a lot of fun. There are worse themes to be heavy-handed about than congeniality and faith in human bonds, especially in the discordant world of today. At 30 bucks, it’s a steep price to view on Disney+. But, if you have the good fortune of a quarantine bubble that can divide it a few ways, sitting down with friends or family to the charms, eye candy and ebullient themes of “Raya and the Last Dragon” isn’t the worst way to spend an evening. After all, isn’t the real cinema the friends you make along the way?
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at email@example.com.