The Disney Princess Project: “Mulan”

You don't meet a girl like that every dynastyPreviously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
The Little Mermaid
The Princess and the Frog

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.”

The Great ’90s Animated Film Project: “Mulan” Revisited

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
The Prince of Egypt,
Quest for Camelot,
The Iron Giant,
The King and I,
The Lion King

When I began The Great ’90s Animated Film Project, I started with Mulan and then watched most of the films in chronological order. After rewatching Mulan, it seems that I underestimated this film, previously simply feeling that it was a good movie. But I feel that I should revise my prior assessment and say that Mulan is in fact the best film made by Disney post-Beauty and the Beast.

I won’t go over the plot again, as I did so in my previous post on Mulan. Watching this film, it seems that this is Disney’s most complete film that I watched for The Great ’90s Animated Film Project. There’s nothing in this film that seems to bring down the film. Although some might argue that Mushu brings down the film because of Eddie Murphy’s sometimes anachronistic hijinks, Mushu actually brings an interesting contrast and comparison to Mulan’s efforts, which I will get to later.

Mulan is one of the few films that that shows a complete transformation for the protagonist. At the start of the film, Mulan is a girl who isn’t really amazing. She’s a loyal and thoughtful daughter, but is seen being late to appointments and slacking off on her chores. She goes through the motions of training exercises, but doesn’t seem to really put forth any effort until she’s given the threat of being sent home, which would be a huge disgrace to her family. By the end of the film, we see Mulan transformed into a clever soldier and a hero who uses both the weapons of war as well as the roles of women in China to save the empire.

Furthermore, although Mulan becomes a leader, she still works together with her fellow troops, or even Mushu. Mulan is not a natural born warrior; the only reasons as to why she goes off to war are to save her father and to bring honor to her family. She evolves into this role, which is one of the satisfying parts of watching the film.

This brings me to addressing Mushu. In my previous post I said Mushu is a dramatic foil, but instead he is a comparison point for Mulan’s efforts. Mushu deceives the ancestors and Mulan because he, in a way, wants to bring honor to the Fa family as well as restore his own position as a guardian. They both want to restore dignity and do it in two different ways. Mulan does it by risking her life, while Mushu does it by trying to make Mulan a convincing man. In the end they both achieve their goals, primarily by working harder than they ever did before in the film.

The idea of gender roles is also played with in this film. Early in the film, Mulan is just as awkward in the male role of an Imperial Soldier as she is as a woman, perhaps even more awkward because she tries to be macho. At the end of the film, Mulan convinces three of her fellow soldiers to dress in drag as a way to save the emperor. On the journey to becoming a hero, Mulan does not have to give up female gender roles, other than to fit in as a man. In fact, while defeating Shan-Yu, both her and her fellow soldiers use both techniques Mulan is taught to do to be an appealing bride as well as defense moves they learn during training. If there is a message that could be derived from this film in regards to gender, it would be that it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man or how you live your life, you can find ways to uphold honor.

As for other aspects of Mulan, the film has the most unique visual style of any Disney film that I wrote about during this project. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook’s film often evokes the look of Chinese artwork from that era and has the most unique character designs that match with the temperament of the characters. Additionally Matthew Wilder’s songs are memorable and Jerry Goldsmith’s score works perfectly for evoking the right moods at certain moments. Be it when Mulan is running away or anytime Shan-Yu is on screen. The film also has some of the best plot pacing in any of the films I’ve watched.

Overall, Mulan is the best Disney movie included in this project because it feels like it’s the most thought-out and best executed. This is also easily the last terrific movie Disney made until The Princess and the Frog and is a film that continually is good on multiple viewings, even as an adult.
Now that the project is officially over, here are my rankings of the films:
1). The Iron Giant
2). The Prince of Egypt
3). Mulan
4). The Hunchback of Notre Dame
5). Anastasia
6). Hercules
7). The Lion King
8). Tarzan
9). Quest for Camelot
10). The Swan Princess
11). Pocahontas
12). The King and I

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.