There are a lot of things to like about Raya and the Last Dragon—its predominantly Asian American cast, its bold character and environment designs, its sweeping score—but perhaps the most likeable thing in the whole movie is the character Noi. Noi, also known as Little Noi, is a baby (voiced by teenaged actress Thalia Tran), and she is also, as it happens, a criminal with three monkey sidekicks. Naturally, I am obsessed with her.
To be clear, “Baby [Noun]” is not an instant home run for me. Like most people, I agree that Baby Yoda is great, but Boss Baby is a hard no. As far as “cute sidekicks” go: Minions? Pass. Penguins of Madagascar? Maybe. And as for babies with uncannily high levels of motor control—if you have ever experienced an existential crisis while watching child performers dance during the Tony Awards, then you know what I’m talking about—I generally find them kind of creepy. So the fact that Noi, who can stand, run, understand everything that’s said to her, and do pretty much everything a grown-up can do—except speak in words and be of adult stature—is still such a source of pure joy for me is one heck of an achievement.
“OK, but who is Noi?” you might ask. “Is she really so important that you’re writing a whole piece about how much you love this animated baby?” The answer to the second question is yes. The answer to the first question is: She’s a baby con artist, whose primary ruse is to use her darling features to distract people while her monkeys (called “Ongis” in the world of the film) pick their pockets. However, she’s also fully capable of holding her own in a fight (during her first encounter with Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, she kicks the warrior princess in the neck), as well as performing monkey-aided acrobatic feats. As for why she’s important to the story, on Raya’s journey to reunite the fictional kingdom of Kumandra, our protagonist is joined by four other humans, with each of them representing one of the five nations that Kumandra has fractured into. Noi is just one of these five, and she is also the best.
Granted, she may not be the most important of that quintet, at least when it comes to the film’s plot—the movie is named after Raya for a reason, after all, and the arc of the conflicted villain Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan) is another highlight—but that doesn’t stop her from stealing scenes every bit as nimbly as she picks pockets. The way she’s animated, she is in equal parts the most adorable character in the movie and the most ornery, veering between Gerber baby and mini Joe Pesci without ever seeming like anything other than one unified character. (It probably doesn’t hurt that many real-life babies do, in fact, look like Joe Pesci.) When she genuinely laughs, there’s nary a wrinkle on her face, but when she’s scheming, creases form around her eyes and nose that suggest a mischievousness beyond her years. And there are in-betweens too, as when, during a chase, Noi sails through the air over her pursuer, smiles, and waves a smug bye-bye at them in slow motion. Despite how much is demanded of the character, specifically in terms of un-baby-ish acts, the way she’s designed and animated never make her appear un-baby-ish at all.
What could the magic ingredient be? Maybe it’s her face, which is like a slightly more advanced version of Peko-chan, the Fujiya mascot whose cherubic appearance has become inextricably linked with the company’s Milky candy. Both characters have round, rosy cheeks, big, sparkling eyes, and hair tied up in small sprouts on both sides of their heads. Those traits never change, even as Noi’s mannerisms sometimes lean into those of an old man, such as when she calls the Ongis to her side and feeds each of them a treat as they walk, or when she gives a much older, much bigger man a pat on the chest to comfort him.
As for the Ongis, they’re a talented bunch, too. They know how to bait Raya’s own sidekick Tuk Tuk (a creature voiced by Alan Tudyk who’s part armadillo, part giant pillbug), for instance. And while the trio of tricksters have fairly typical sidekick designs—a small one, a wide one, a long one—they distinguish themselves by how, when they come together with Noi, they form one well-oiled (and very charming) machine.
Since Baby Yoda first came into the public eye in 2019, he hasn’t faced any challengers for its media-baby throne. Noi may not have any Force powers, but she’s scrappy enough to make up for it. Besides, who needs Midi-chlorians when you’ve got monkeys?