Grade:  A-/B+
Rated PG

Some twelve weeks after its theatrical debut, Raya and the Last Dragon is the third highest grossing film in the U.S., behind Spiral and Wrath of Man. With a domestic box office of $49.3 million and another $60.6 million international box office revenue, it’s exceeding expectations, and I’d like to suggest one reason why:  Disney animators always seem to up their game, and they did so again with Raya.

The martial arts swordfights in this 59th full-length feature from Disney are the most accomplished I’ve seen so far in the world of animation—presented at a speed you’d normally encounter in the best Ip Man, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan movies. Combine that with gorgeous backgrounds and character animations, and Raya and the Last Dragon is another solid effort from the House of Mouse—though the plot itself can seem a bit familiar.

Set in a dystopian fantasy world, Raya and the Last Dragon begins with the backstory of a fictional land (Kumandra) where dragons and people once thrived together until evil spirits (that look a bit like the smoke monster on Lost)terrorized the land and turned dragons and people to stone—except for some people and one dragon, who focused the magic she and other dragons had on a single gem. But you do the math: one gem and five tribes? Of course they fight over it, and the pieces are eventually scattered among those tribes. Hundreds of years later, the Druun return and wreak havoc on the now-separate sections of what was once Kumandra. Raya is the daughter of Chief Benja of the Heart tribe, while her once friend and now rival, Namaari, is the princess of the Fang tribe. But like any fantasy, the story itself seems more complicated than the visual action. Relax and enjoy this simple quest story, as Raya tries to find the last dragon, recover the jewel pieces, and defeat the Druun once and for all. Unless Namaari beats her to it.

Give Disney credit, though, for creating strong female characters without drawing attention to it, without adding a Prince or love interest, and for not making a big deal out of adding two more princesses to the merchandising Pantheon. Give them credit, too, for giving Asians and Asian Americans feisty princesses that look like them—even if Disney took a little flak (what else is new?) for not featuring enough South Asian actors among the voice talents.

Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker) gives voice to Raya, while Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) plays the dragon Sisu and Gemma Chan (Doctor Who, Crazy Rich Asians) is the voice of Namaari. But Disney depends on supporting characters as much as they do those high-profile princesses, and Raya has some unique ones:  a likable 10-year-old named Boun (Izaac Wang), who runs a floating shrimp restaurant in Tail land; Little Noi (Thalia Tran), an infant con artist from Talon land; and Tong (Benedict Wong), a warrior giant from Spine land. And in case you hadn’t gathered as much, all of the lands are named for parts of a dragon, so that when joined, Kumandra is shaped exactly like a dragon.

Disney fans always look for the next Big Cute, the next animal sidekick to capture their hearts and prompt them to buy a stuffed likeness at one of the Disney stores and resorts, and this one is a doozy:  a fantasy creature that looks like a cross between an armadillo and a pill bug that’s large enough for Raya to ride, and which rolls like the Star Wars robot BB-8 with her astride it. So Tuk Tuk is cute, indispensable and appropriately named, because the Tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorized mini-taxi that’s a common form of transportation in Southeast Asia and other subtropical nations.

Put everything together, and this PG-rated martial arts fantasy makes for a nice addition to your Disney collection—and a film that has plenty of replay value.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  107 min. (Color)
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  7.1 DTS-HDMA
Studio/Distributor:  Disney
Bonus features:  B+ (includes short film)
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link
Rated PG for some violence, action, and thematic elements

Language:  0/10—Squeaky clean

Sex:  0/10—No sex, no romance, no love interest

Violence:  6/10—No graphic detail or blood, just lots of acro-jousting and fantasy action and very little in the hurt department; other than an arrow to a dragon that has us wondering, demons turning people to stone is the big outcome—and we’re told early that there’s a possibility for revival, so it’s really like freeze tag

Adult situations:  4/10—No booze, no butts, just peril

Takeaway:  Disney did an admirable job with their first fantasy-world foray in quite some time.