Nothing is especially original in "Raya and the Last Dragon," but in a way, everything is.
The fantasy adventure — in which a young woman searches for five pieces of a magical gem, hoping to unite five warring kingdoms — often looks like Tatooine from the "Star Wars" movies, and its mythic quest has a "Lord of the Rings" vibe. It's more lighthearted than either of those lucrative bits of intellectual property, but the big difference in "Raya" is that virtually all of the important characters are women. From Asia. Who never once need a dude to rescue them. Or romance them.
After a wordy narrated prologue, Raya and the klutzy dragon, a live wire named Sisu and voiced by actor Awkwafina, are off on a quest that will see them befriend a ragtag batch of allies and betrayers (both of them tend to trust the wrong person). Key opponents include a youthful rival of Raya's (voiced by Gemma Chan), now grown into a bloodthirsty nemesis whose mysterious mother (Sandra Oh) has a calm demeanor that holds out the possibility for negotiation and peace.
There's a video game quality to "Raya," which resets each time the team prepares to search for the next chunk of the gem, and the mini-searches aren't differentiated enough, perhaps because of something that is happening off-screen.
"Raya" was made with the intention of gaining an inroad in the lucrative Chinese movie market (it's getting released there at the same time as in the U.S.). The movie is careful to avoid specific references to actual countries in that neck of the woods for fear of incurring the wrath of the Chinese government (its mythical setting, Kumandra, seems to be in Southeast Asia, where they enjoy eating congee, watching shadow puppet plays and flying paper lanterns crafted in a Starburst Fruit Chews color palette).
Sometimes that makes the movie feel generic, but Kelly Marie Tran's performance as Raya is enormously helpful. Her acting has tons of personality and heart, particularly in the poignant final scenes. The script, by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, is occasionally hindered by having no specific geography or culture to fall back on but it compensates with bright humor, like when a brute gleefully muses, "It's been such a long time since I last peered into the eyes of a trembling enemy. Where has the time gone?"
The humor of "Raya" is distinctively gentle (even that brute turns out to be a friendly brute), which helps break up the sword battles and chase scenes (to be fair, I'm the guy who wants every "Star Wars" light saber battle cut in half).
What really keeps the movie fresh, though, is how matter-of-factly it centers its female characters. They demonstrate that when the movies include people whose voices have not had much chance to be heard, even the oldest stories can feel new again.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Raya and the Last Dragon
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: PG for action scenes.
Where: In theaters and on Disney Plus.