The urgent message in Disney cartoon
For all of its boundary-busting, Raya and the Last Dragon is a classic Disney adventure in which a young woman embarks on a hero quest.
The animated hero quest is a classic formula for a reason - a clearly-defined story arc for children and the emotional sophistication to keep adults gripped.
If it all comes together - and here, it does - it's the promise of an exciting journey the whole family can take, in which kids bound out demanding a furry dragon toy and their parents ponder about the very nature of trust.
Much like the more sophisticated narratives in animation, Raya and the Last Dragon leaves a lasting impression through its thematic richness, one that speaks urgently to contemporary social ills.
With cynicism and mistrust polluting public discourse, Raya's conceit that trust is given, not earnt is a fresh injection in thinking about how we can all heal.
RELATED: Everything new to streaming in March
Five hundred years ago in the fictional world of Kumandra, dragons lived among people until purple energy monsters named the druun plagued the land and turned people it encountered into stone.
The remaining dragons sacrificed themselves with their magic and banished the druun. All that remained was a gem that contained the last of dragon magic and a myth that Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, was sleeping where the river ends.
Kumandra split into five lands - Heart, Talon, Fang, Tail and Spine - riven by suspicion of each other. Five centuries later, the division still stands but Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of Heart wants to reunite the tribes. He tells his daughter Raya (Tran) that they must all learn to trust each other.
When Benja and Raya's trust is betrayed by the Fang leader (Sandra Oh) and her daughter Namaari (Gemma Chan), a cataclysmic event unleashes the druun once more.
With Benja turned into stone, Raya needs to find Sisu, re-piece together the dragon gem and banish the druun once more.
Raya's quest is aided by a cavalcade of allies, among them an armadillo-like sidekick, Tuk Tuk, and characters she meets on her travels, all of whom have lost loved ones to the druun.
Raya thinks her biggest obstacle is her fierce rivalry with Namaari but what's really holding her back may be something within herself.
Raya is a multifaceted formidable hero that little (and not-so-little) girls would want to emulate but she works best when she's paired with Sisu. Sisu's innocence and openness is exactly what's needed to draw Raya out from her darkness.
Tran and the comedically gifted Awkwafina play off each other beautifully, lending their characters so much life.
Disney's first pan-South East Asian-based film is a step up in the specificity of on-screen representation, even if it means, for now, a fictional cultural identity stitched together from influences that spans Myanmar to Indonesia.
There are little touches and nods in the art direction that will have significance to audiences with a South East Asian background though it may put everyone off jackfruit jerky.
The fight scenes, while a little weightless, also draws from Asian martial arts traditions, and it's always refreshing to see action sequences in which two female characters are given the freedom to be active and physical.
Unlike other hero quests, neither Raya nor Namaari need to find their strength, what they need to find is something so much more fundamental to humanity - trust in the face of discord.
Raya and the Last Dragon is in cinemas from March 4 and on Disney+ for premium rental at $34.99 on March 5
Share your movies and TV obsessions | @wenleima
Originally published as The urgent message in Disney cartoon