I am not done writing about this movie.
“Mulan” is possibly the last great animated film Disney made during its “Renaissance.” The film features a unique visual design that works well for the story, like in “Hercules.” The film also features a terrific lead female character and several fascinating characters that enrich the film.
Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is the daughter of Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh), who has previously served in the Imperial Army in China. Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) and the Huns have invaded China, meaning that the men in China’s families are being called to serve in the Imperial Army. Mulan, who earlier in the day was called a disgrace by a matchmaker, is horrified by the idea of her father serving in the army. During the night, she decides to disguise herself as a man and take her father’s place in the army. Gong-ringer Mushu (Eddie Murphy) goes to get Mulan in place of the Great Stone Dragon in hopes of becoming a family guardian. When he teams up Mulan, they go to the army camp and meet Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Ling (Gedde Watanabe) and Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo). The troops, under the leadership of Captain Li Shang (BD Wong), prepare to be ready to defeat the Huns.
The most striking aspect of the film is how the characters grow throughout the movie. Yao, Ling and Chien-Po grow to be loyal and competent soldiers over the course of the film. Shang grows to being able to respect Mulan as a woman. Mushu is able to think of other people instead of himself. Mulan grows from a clumsy girl everyone views as a screw-up as the hero of China. In the end of the film, the main characters have grown since they’re introduced and none of them feel like they kill the feeling of the film.
“Mulan” also features great songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. Each of the songs in the film are memorable and work well to reveal a bit of the characters and the world they lived in.
What’s also interesting about the film is how the characters are portrayed. The characters in this film that are human feel much more human than in other movies I’ve looked at in this series of blog posts. Unlike the John Smith or the princes in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” Li Shang seems human rather than a hunky, tough Ken doll. Unfortunately, this feels like a bit of progress in the film, although Belle and Jasmine reject the hunky and bland suitors in their films for more flawed love interests.
I really can’t think of anything more to say about “Mulan,” so let’s discuss Mulan the character.
But is Mulan a Good Role Model for Children? Hell yes.
Mulan proves to be a very smart person who by the end of the film is great at creating a plan and fighting. Unlike many of the other characters that are official Disney princesses, Mulan is not motivated to do things in the movie because of a man she just met that she is madly in love with. When she joins the army, it is to protect her father. In the end, her actions end up bringing quite a bit of honor to the Fa family.
What is also interesting is that Mulan and Merida are the two Disney princesses not given a big official love interest. Romantic interest that Mulan has in Shang is implied in “Mulan,” but only confirmed in “Mulan 2,” which we will not get into in this post. Many of Mulan’s actions in the film where she does something to help Shang could be read as her helping her commanding officer or saving the life of her commanding officer rather than someone she is in love with. In the end of the movie, she is only reunited with Shang because he seeks her out to return the Fa family helmet. At that point in the film, the person the most vocal about being interested in Shang is not Mulan, but her grandmother.
However, Mulan is not actually a princess which brings up the question of why she is an official Disney princess.
Mulan is not born into nobility, which means that by birth she is not a princess. She also does not get engaged to someone born into nobility, which is how some of the Disney princesses become princesses. What is also interesting is that there are two princesses in Disney films that are not official princesses. It’s very likely that due to how dark “The Black Cauldron” is and it’s failure at the box office that Princess Eilonwy is not included. As for Princess Kida in “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” she was possibly not included because it would have been difficult to use her in merchandise.
The reason that seems most obvious to me as to why Mulan is an part of the Disney princess court is to defuse some criticism from feminists. This is a character who finally feels comfortable with herself after joining the army. She is never a damsel in distress and spends a good portion of the film not dressed as a woman. She can handle a sword, fire canons and has some great martial arts moves. She is the exact opposite of the characteristics most critics of Disney Princess assign to the princesses overall. It could even be easy to boil the message of the film’s sequel down to “Screw the constraints of a patriarchal society!”
However, Disney does not merchandise Mulan in a way that fits into the explanation I gave. The Mulan costume Disney stores sell is close to her outfit at the matchmaker and features pretty shoes and a fan. The costume is not like the one she wears when disguised as Ping or when she saves the emperor. And unlike with Merida where you can buy a bow and arrow set like the one Merida owns, there isn’t a toy version of the Fa family sword. It almost feels like Disney said “Look! We have a princess who is awesome! But we’re still going to make her really really girly.”
So while I’m conflicted and confused about Disney’s decision to include Mulan as a princess, I have to say she is the best role model in any of the movies so far. It also helps that she is possibly in the best of any of the Disney films I’ve watched for this series.
And now I’ll stop 1,000+ words on “Mulan.”