The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Mulan” (1998)

(Thank you, Wikimedia Commons)

First of all, I would like to admit that the 1998 Disney film Mulan is one of my favorite films. As a result, I am a bit biased because I love this film, but then I’m biased towards Pocahontas and Anastasia, because I really would like to try to like those films.

(Because I’m not sure how many people have seen the film, I don’t go into too many details in the summary.)

Anyway, Mulan is based off of the legend of Hua Mulan, a woman who went off to fight in an all-male Chinese army in the place of her father. In the Disney film, Mulan is now Fa Mulan and she has a wise cracking dragon sidekick named Mushu, voiced by Eddy Murphy.

The film sets up the story by letting us know that the Huns, led by Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), have invaded China by crossing the Great Wall. To help protect China and defeat the Huns, the Emperor (Pat Morita), orders that one man from every family will join up with the army. Go from the Imperial City to the tranquil farm of the Fa family, where we meet the tomboyish Mulan (Ming-Na), whose tendencies to be herself and speak her mind cause her to be viewed as a disgrace to her family. When her father, who is known for his service to the Imperial Army (and might have been injured in his prior service, but that is never made clear in the film), is called up to serve in the army, Mulan protests and is chastised by her father for not knowing her place. After her family falls asleep, she prays to the ancestors, cuts her hair, takes her father’s armor and orders to serve in the army, and runs away to serve in her father’s place in a scene set to some great synthesizer music.

This awakens the ancestors, whose gong-ringer is a dragon named Mushu. Mushu, unable to waken the Great Stone Dragon, decides to go protect Mulan, masquerading as the Great Stone Dragon to the ancestors to make them think he did his job. Mushu meets up with Mulan and rechristens her Ping so she has a name as she trains in a troop led by Captain Li Shang (B.D. Wong), that also has the colorful characters of Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Ling (Gedde Watanabe), and Chen-Po (Jerry Tondo). After a training sequence that features what is quite possibly the best Disney song ever, Mushu forges orders for the soldiers to get moving to fight the Huns.

Mulan is a very strong film that not only has a strong girl-power message (that I will discuss later), but also tells a good story that doesn’t seem too far fetched in an attempt to have a happy ending and doesn’t focus on the romantic relationship between the titular character and their romantic interest. It features the use of humorous dialogue to lighten the situation and severity of the consequences of the situation the characters are in. What makes Mulan work is that it is very possible that Mulan could be killed for crossdressing and joining the army and that almost happens. The Emperor could be killed by Shan Yu and the Huns could take control of China. Yes, we cheer for the good guys and hope they win, but this film does not skirt the severity of the situations the characters find themselves in.

In this film, Mushu serves as the Cute Little Animal Sidekick, although the same could be said about Cri-Kee or Khan, Mulan’s horse, who feels a bit similar to Philippe, Belle’s horse in Beauty and the Beast. Mushu serves in many instances as the comic relief, but so do Yao, Ling, Chen-Po, and Chi-Fu, the Emperor’s right hand man. Mushu’s main purpose seems to be a bit of a foil to Mulan. Both of them want to restore their respect among their circles and bring honor to the Fa Family. However, Mulan tries to achieve this goal by working hard in training and using her wit and knowledge. Mushu repeatedly tries to cut corners to keep Mulan’s identity as a woman a secret and get her out into the battlefield to make her a war hero. After watching Mulan, I was left wondering if Mushu is really a necessary character, other than that he’s a handy source of fire.

Mulan features music by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, who also wrote the lyrics for the film Hercules and the musical City of Angels. The songs are catchy and further the plot and character development, which is better than some musicals that are out there. Although Mulan has the distinction of having this song, which I would argue for being the best song in a Disney film:

Mulan is in every way a good animated film; it tells a story well and it is beautifully animated. The film also pokes fun at gender roles, particularly in the time period the film takes place in. Mulan is a woman and should be a good wife and do a nice job of pouring tea. But the outfits she’s put in when visiting the matchmaker are too tight for her, which shows her own discomfort with the roles for the women. The character does her best in armor using a sword and kicking ass. Notably kicking Hun ass. Similarly, men are supposed to be manly, but near the end of the film, Yao, Ling, and Chen-Po take on feminine roles in order to try to defeat the Huns. Oddly enough, the most misogynistic character in Mulan, Chi-Fu, is also the most effeminate character in the film. In the end, Mulan is able to cast off the strict gender roles of her time and save China, earn the respect of the Emperor, and restore honor to her family. The film ultimately tells girls that they can be whom they are most comfortable as and still be awesome.
So for the first film, we have a film that manages to not shift from the source material too badly and is a great film. Although the films will be watched and analyzed in chronological order by release, this was watched first because it had been in my Netflix queue for a while. So, the next film to be analyzed will be Pocahontas, a huge shift from Mulan.

Update: I forgot about The Swan Princess.

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