Martial Arts in Raya and the Last Dragon - Review
Updated: Mar 9
I'm so excited that we finally have our first South-East Asian Disney princess. The animation was stunning, the instrumentals were perfect (could you expect anything less from Disney) and there was no singing Princess, which I think suited this film. But the most exciting part was the martial arts of course!!!
I appreciate that the women were portrayed as fighters and rulers and not the stereotypical submissive home bound girl being groomed to marry prince charming. I'd also like to mention that this is not a new concept for South-East Asia. History tells us (in the Philippines at least) there were women rulers involved in politics and also warriors who fought alongside men. This is mimicked in Raya as a strong-headed, proactive main character, which I think a lot of girls/women can relate to. I also like that they created a second female lead in princess Namaari shifting the focus from prince charming to one of friendship & trust instead. That was actually refreshing and great to watch two princesses battle against one another.
Speaking of warrior princesses, how could I not love all the martial arts representation in this film. Qui Nguyen who was behind the martial arts knowledge adopted a variety of techniques and weapons inspiration from South-East Asia including Arnis/Escrima, Muay Thai, Krabi Krabong, and Silat to name a few. Those fight scenes were so fun to watch, fast paced, and I think encouraging for kids/adults to seek knowledge in the martial arts of South-East Asia. Raya uses twirl designed olisi (rattan sticks) when training with her father Chief Benja, and as she gets older we see Raya use her father's Kris sword that morphs into a type of whip. Very cool remix! Raya also fights dos manos and actually switches sword hands, though I'd say she's mainly right handed ;) Namaari uses Krabi swords, a double sword combination known as Daab Mong Mue as well as a bladed staff known as a Ngaw. Tong, a fearless warrior and sole survivor of 'Spine' wields an axe, though we don't get to see much fighting from him. And clever little Noi, the con-baby, hustle's with three ongis at her side showing us strength in numbers. You'll see Noi use some of her dirty street fighting tricks too like throwing dust in Raya's face. Qui Nguyen made sure to make the movements in their fighting style (stances, hand-to-hand combat, physics) as close to how you would see them in reality as possible. The magic was spared and instead awarded to Sisu the water dragon and Raya's whip kris. Amongst the various tribes there was one weapon that stood out to me - the schmitar, scythe or curved sickle. I tend to associate this weapon with the Middle-East so was wondering about which country they were referencing. Maybe somewhere in South-East Asia someone is using this weapon and I just don't know about it so I'm keen to find out. It's basically a melting pot of martial arts goodness I think I need to watch it a second time to catch the details.
If there is one thing I wish there was more of it would be to see the development of Raya's training with Chief Benja and how they became so skilled as guardians of the dragon gem. We had a glimpse in the opening sequence however I think this could have been teased out a little more. Considering how skilled Raya and Namaari are with the sword and watching them nail their Muay Thai kicks I did feel like we were missing pieces in their growth as martial artists.
All up, I love this movie's representation of South-East Asian martial arts, artistic visuals, the range of characters, sounds, and the fast paced adventure. This will definitely be in the collection.