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Feminist Film Club: Raya and the Last Dragon

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

The F Word team went on a group field trip to watch Disney’s latest offering, Raya and the Last Dragon. The film marked Disney’s first foray into Southeast Asia, and we were excited to see the depiction of Disney's first Southeast Asian princess on the big screen.


What better film to choose for our first #FeministFilmClub column? Here, four of The F Word’s team members share their thoughts on the movie: what they liked, what they didn’t, and what they thought of the representation of Southeast Asia.



Gun’s Review

Raya and The Last Dragon is underrated. Growing up a huge fan of Disney, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see Southeast Asian representations: ranging from characters, food culture to values. Although it’s not a one-to-one representation of each specific country, it is a step in the right direction.


Since the very beginning, trust is introduced as the theme of the story. We understand the importance of the dragons to Kumandra and its people. We see the relationship between Raya and her father and the way he teaches her to have faith in other people. When Raya meets Namaari, the antagonist, her faith is destroyed. Even though she still clings on to her father’s guidance, she is skeptical.


Growing up a huge fan of Disney, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see Southeast Asian representations: ranging from characters, food culture to values.

Raya goes from only eating her jackfruit jerky to enjoying a family style dinner with her crew. Her character development reaches the climax when she entrusts Namaari with her piece of the Dragon Gem, hoping that Namaari will use the gem to restore peace to Kumandra after she turns into a stone.


The movie successfully infuses emotional depth. Namaari isn’t depicted as the ultimate villain; we see her innocence shine through her eyes when she first sees Sisu. The key messages I got from watching it are: to find it in your heart to be able to trust others, although they may have wronged you; don’t assume things and learn to take the first step to be a bigger person. Last but not least, Disney has never failed me in presenting the bonds between animals and their human companions.


Raya and the Last Dragon movie - Raya and Sisu
© Disney, All Rights Reserved

Nimphiya’s Review

To start with I would like to put out a disclaimer - I am no expert in movie making or have any technical know how. That out of the way, I love cinema and I live it my own way.


Why Raya and the Last Dragon? A few compelling reasons:

  1. Raya and the last Dragon introduces Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. Shoutout to “representation”!

  2. The movie is totally based in Southeast Asia and I live in Thailand, so I felt the home connection.

  3. And of course what’s not to like about getting to watch a landmark movie with your favorite people during these unprecedented times.


Now what I liked about the movie:

  1. Feminism - yes i said it. What worked for me was that both the hero and the anti-hero had equal and powerful character arcs. I loved the fact that the anti-hero of the movie was a woman and no less menacing.

  2. The world of Kumandra that the movie created had a lot going right for it than wrong. How the characters looked, behaved, felt was all on point with the region they were trying to showcase. Even the food.

  3. The concept of “trust” was very relevant and opportune. Moral lesson right there, moreso for adults than kids, I believe.

  4. The movie captured all the emotions of good storytelling. Special mention for Awkwafina (Sisu) and Kelly Marie Tran’s (Raya) comic timing.

  5. It’s a feel-good movie where you know the outcome and yet you are invested in Raya’s journey.

  6. Technically very well made movie, great graphics, detailing and music.


What worked for me was that both the hero and the anti-hero had equal and powerful character arcs. I loved the fact that the anti-hero of the movie was a woman and no less menacing.

Things that the movie missed:

  1. As I mentioned above, the movie did get a lot of things right in its portrayal of Kumandra, but somewhere in its bid to create a Southeast Asian world they blended the entire region, while missing some important countries, like the Philippines, altogether. But it’s a start and here’s to hoping the journey will be long and exciting.

  2. While the two main female characters had a backstory and a character arc, most of the other characters felt underdeveloped.

  3. The conflict was resolved too easily. Namaari went against her mother just like that. That part didn’t feel too convincing.


Raya and the Last Dragon - Raya and her father in Southeast Asian dress
© Disney, All Rights Reserved

Blue’s Review

I remembered watching Raya and gripping the arm of my friend every time I noticed little details I, a Thai audience, would recognize. Lemongrass floating in animated soup, names like Pranee and Manee, when uttered.


I hear other people say this a lot - about how great it felt to see your culture represented in the big screen. I understood this in theory but it was something I always felt a little bit iffy with, the notion that we needed a larger studio of a foreign entity to recognize us in order for us to feel seen.


And the fact that well...I can’t relate. The most ‘represented’ I ever seen Thailand plastered on the big screen was in movies like The Hangover showing Thailand through a white-gaze lens of Thailand, the sexual, exotic, tourist escape.


However, sitting in that movie theatre I was elated getting to see the artistic details of my culture being picked out and woven onto the big screen so lovingly. I appreciated the costumes, the architecture. I loved the attention to detail of a Disney film and liked that when Southeast Asia got a Disney princess, she was independent and strong.


Raya was charming even though she still fell into that Katniss-Everdeen tomboyish feminist protagonist trope - as if the only way to show a strong female character she needed to be carved away her femininity.


Despite the attention to its aesthetic details the film did leave me feeling a little bit lackluster. The look was there but the cultural heart felt missing within the plot.


It made me think of Mulan, which is still my favorite Disney movie (the cartoon not the live action) to date. Mulan, while I know that some might have qualms about it, her story is still laced with her cultural background, her ideals on family, loyalty and honor was something that was very much aligned with the story’s cultural root.


Raya’s story spoke about trust, yet this felt like a generic story structure wearing a Thai-Laotian skin. (Also, speaking of Mulan - still my favorite female protagonist to date, she could wield a sword but she was still her, she was still feminine and leveraged her feminine strength to win rather than having to be like a male protagonist. That’s how you do a strong female character justice, but I digress.)


Despite the attention to its aesthetic details the film did leave me feeling a little bit lackluster. The look was there but the cultural heart felt missing within the plot.

Perhaps it felt alienating story-wise because it was a story about lack of trust and a big part of Thainess to me is about the double-edged sword of a collective mindset. Thais are sentimental, sensitive and have a natural empathetic inclination. If you know enough Thai people, you will know that even the coldest of us know how to do this emotional gymnastic of juggling and sensing others’ emotions while dismissing our own.


It is also why we are more likely to lean towards harmony even if that meant sacrificing integrity (both of which a good and bad thing). This is why seeing the tribes broke out that way felt off, it was lacking that cultural pulse. But then again, this could just be me.


Raya and the Last Dragon movie - Namaari in the desert
© Disney, All Rights Reserved

Amy’s Review

First of all, I know Raya means a lot to a lot of people when it comes to representation. Though I'm not Southeast Asian, the small details I did notice from living in this region made me smile - taking off shoes to step into a sacred place, echoes of the pearl and the dragon story, and the many tributaries of the Mekong-like river, to name but a few, though I'm sure there are plenty of others I missed.


At first, I was concerned the rich and distinct cultures of Southeast Asian nations had been mushed into one monolith as Kumandra, but speaking to our Thai team, it seemed this wasn't a concern they shared. The region has a long, shared heritage and Raya is set in the ancient kingdoms of the past, rather than within the borders of the present day.


What I loved about Raya was that it had all the trappings of a feel-good Pixar movie (badass heroine, cute animal sidekicks and a heartwarming message), but the format seemed different.


First, there was no camp villian. The closest is Namaari, the betrayer, but she's arguably as much the heroine as Raya. A complex character who is both humanly flawed and fiercely brave, her path to redemption and inner conflict is, for me, actually more captivating than Raya's quest to see her father again, which makes me wonder if the perspectives should have been flipped?


The only true villain is the sludgy Druun that represents human discord, a monster released when the kingdoms break the Dragon Gem and turn against each other. The metaphor is a bit heavy, but, essentially, we are our own worst enemy.


Second, there is no "chosen one" narrative. Raya is imperfect, choosing to focus on her own personal motivation of reuniting with her father over fulfilling his prophecy-like dream of reuniting the kingdoms, while Sisu admits she isn't exactly the most impressive dragon of the bunch (but she's a really good swimmer! Omg Awkwafina is amazing).


This message surprised me and was something I really took away from the film, especially in light of current events perhaps; that giving someone the gift of your trust, when there is so much to be distrustful about, is an incredibly powerful act.

In fact, the hero's journey is flipped on its head - the "who you are" is not as important as "what you do." The hero isn't chosen by destiny, rather the power lies in the choice to be vulnerable: to take the first step by putting your trust in someone. In doing so, you empower them to be the hero, to make the right choice, to be vulnerable too.


This message surprised me and was something I really took away from the film, especially in light of current events perhaps; that giving someone the gift of your trust, when there is so much to be distrustful about, is an incredibly powerful act. I hope kids who watch this film take away the same timely moral because it encourages small, achievable acts of everyday heroism, as opposed to the glory of leading a big battle.


On the other hand, there were a few things I wasn't so thrilled about. The convoluted backstories and time-hopping were distracting, and meant there wasn't enough time in the present to develop supporting characters. If you asked me to, I'm not 100% sure I could relay the plot.


But most importantly WHERE WERE THE SONGS?


I was waiting for a melody to kick in and I'm devastated one never did. When I think about some of Disney's other modern princess movies (Frozen, Moana) and the success of their soundtracks, the choice to have a songless Raya seems like a missed opportunity. I worry that the film, also released in a year people aren't going to the cinema, might be quickly forgotten because of it.


All in all, I loved the villain-less, hero-less Raya, its representation of Southeast Asia, its three strong leading women (if we count the dragon), and its message.


And of course, as seems to be a personal ritual every time I watch a Disney movie, I had a little tear. For Raya, the emotional moment came at the end when the families reunited. Yes, it was a little cheesy, but it's been a long pandemic, am I right?


Raya and the Last Dragon movie - Raya and her animal sidekick looking at the sunset
© Disney, All Rights Reserved

Image credits: © Disney, All Rights Reserved


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