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By Leah Greenblatt
March 02, 2021 at 12:23 PM EST
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The demographics of the Disney princess club have been evolving for a while now — fewer narcoleptic beauties and glass slippers, a lot more manifest destiny and swordplay; the last decades' long march of Moanas, Mulans, Elsas, and Annas leading steadily toward a different brand of heroine, one who rarely waits in towers to be rescued or awakened by true love's kiss.

Raya and the Last Dragon (on Disney+ March 5) feels like the logical extension of all that, and a further loosening too: a smart, snappy adventure tale that wears its matter-of-fact modern feminism on its sleeve — a sleeve that will be rolled up many times in the heat of battle or in search of a snack pouch. And this time, deliberately or not, they've done away with romance entirely; no prince will come, because he hasn't even been invited to the ball.

Instead it's up to Raya (keenly voiced by Star Wars' Kelly Marie Tran) to rescue herself and the broken land of Kumandra, a once-prosperous place torn into five territories after a dragon extinction event leaves its warring citizens open to the Druun — smoggy, nefarious blobs that look like sentient electric storms and turn living things to stone on contact. Her idealistic father (Daniel Dae Kim), ruler of the split-off part known as the Heart and guardian of the last dragon's gemstone, believes their divided people can be brought back together by hope and good faith; the people quickly, tragically prove him wrong. (All this mythology is laid out neatly in a few brisk scenes.)

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON
Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina star in Disney's "Raya and the Last Dragon."
| Credit: Disney

So Raya, heartbroken and alone in the world aside from a trundling armadillo-bug sidekick named Tuk Tuk, sets off to find the lair of Sisu (Awkwafina). Sisu is the last dragon, if hardly a paragon; she's more like the last pancake, scraped together from lumpy batter and a little bit burnt at the edges. But a dragon is still a dragon — even one whose superpower is being "a really strong swimmer" — and she's willing to help Raya reunite the pieces of the shattered gem so Kumandra can rise again.

To do that they will have to find a way into each heavily guarded territory, and stay at least one step ahead of Raya's former friend turned rival Namaari (Gemma Chan), a fellow warrior with a mean-girl sneer and a sharp undercut. As Sisu and Raya spelunk through Spine and Tail and Talon and Fang, they tend to pick up extra passengers — a sort of human lint roller that gloms onto burbling baby pickpockets, underage gondoliers, and a brick house of a man called Tong (Avengers' Benedict Wong).

Screenwriters Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Qui Nguyen lean into the you-know-how-these-stories-go meta-ness of it all, letting Awkwafina's raspy goofball-slacker id run free, while co-directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting) keep the pace moving at a heist-movie clip, with little pops of visual wit and neatly packaged lessons on friendship and kindness and self-reliance.

If Raya's outlines and endpoint are strictly fairy-tale familiar (evil is vanquished, good triumphs, reconstituted dragons romp), the movie feels fresh not just for the mere fact of its female-forward and predominately Asian cast, but for the breeziness with which it bears the weight of Disney history: not a scolding corrective so much as a welcome swerve towards the unsung audiences it's had all along. Grade: B+

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