Raya and the Last Dragon is a lovely, moving surprise. Its big selling point is that it's the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters, but like so many movies that break ground in terms of representation, it tells a story that's actually woven from reassuringly familiar parts. I didn't mind that in the slightest.
The movie, directed by the Disney veteran Don Hall and the animation newcomer Carlos López Estrada, brings us into a fantasy world that's been beautifully visualized and populated with engaging characters, and it builds to an emotional climax that I'm still thinking about days later.
The story is a little complicated, as these stories tend to be. It takes place in Kumandra, an enchanted realm inspired by various Southeast Asian cultures and divided into five kingdoms named after a dragon's body parts: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail.
Before they became extinct centuries ago, dragons once roamed the land and served as friendly guardians to humanity. Their magic lives on in a jewel called the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a cave in Heart, but the other four kingdoms covet its mighty powers. One day, all five factions come together and try to reach a peace agreement, but tensions erupt, a fight breaks out and the Gem shatters into five pieces that are scattered across Kumandra. This opens the doorway to an ancient enemy called the Druun, a terrible plague that turns people to stone.
Naturally, a hero must rise and save the day. Her name is Raya, and she's a young warrior princess from Heart, voiced by the excellent Kelly Marie Tran from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Raya manages to escape the Druun, though her father, her ba, who's the leader of Heart, isn't so lucky. Now Raya must recover the pieces of the Dragon Gem, reverse the damage and banish the Druun for good.