Mulan brought great honor to Disney heroines everywhere. By creating the bravest Disney Princess the studio has ever seen. The increasing success of the Disney Renaissance meant a Florida branch of Walt Disney animation needed to make their own independent production. After exploring Greek mythology in Hercules, the thirty-sixth animated project chose to explore Chinese legend. The Ballad of Mulan is an ancient Chinese tale that served as inspiration. Where Hua Mulan is a Chinese woman who serves as a soldier in her father’s place. The primary difference is the 12 year period of the war and the fact that she’s never found out.
Although there were definitely women who fought battles disguised as men, Mulan is not based on a real person. Her story had been retold a number of times, but people are more likely to remember Disney’s interpretation. Although Mulan nearly ended up a rom-com in the vein of Tootsie, Disney thankfully honored its source material. Making it the most respectful Asian portrayal the studio has ever done. The mostly Asian cast, attention to Chinese culture, and watercolor animation all helped to round out the depiction. While at the same time staying true to certain Disney traditions. Despite being labeled a musical, Mulan actually features a surprisingly limited amount of songs. So as to not distract from its heavy themes of war…
Mulan is very high on my list of all time favorite Disney movies. I have fond memories of seeing it in theaters when I was just 3 years old. Too young to remember McDonald’s Szechuan sauce promotion. My brother and I fell in love with Mulan the more we watched it on VHS. It’s even a rare Disney movie that I watched in school. Mulan is easily my favorite “girl power” movie. It’s impossible not to cheer for Mulan in her journey towards heroism. Taking place during the Han Dynasty, Mulan opens on an invasion at the Great Wall of China. The intense atmospheric set up is notable for featuring no musical opening. The invading army are the Huns lead by their ruthless cold hearted leader Shan Yu. An all too serious Disney villain with monstrous yellow eyes, fangs, and falcon to match. Shan Yu’s only goal is to conquer China and overthrow the Emperor. And he’s willing to kill innocent messengers and entire villages just to accomplish it.
So the Emperor calls for one male member of every family to fight in the Chinese army. The late Pat Morita is a perfectly dignified ruler, but his pompous misogynistic assistant Chi-Fu is the biggest a-hole in Disney history. Voiced by the legendary James Hong. Fa Mulan is one of my absolute favorite Disney Princesses. Despite having no royal designation. I’m sure the fact that she’s the first heroine of Asian decent is the main reason for her inclusion. The always welcome Ming-Na Wen helped turn Mulan into a dynamic role model whose path isn’t defined by romance. Of course a little romance doesn’t hurt. Mulan is as beautiful as a porcelain doll, but she’s also very smart, caring, and thinks outside the box. Something that clashes with the role she’s supposed to play in society.
Mulan notably has a living mother, father, little brother (that’s actually a dog), and a feisty grandmother who all expect her to bring honor to the family. Her animal sidekicks are her faithful Chinese black horse Khan and not so lucky cricket Cri-Kee. Who’s cute, but doesn’t serve much story purpose. After a botched visit to a matchmaker, Mulan longs for a chance to be herself. An opportunity she gets when her enfeebled father Fa Zhou is forced to fight in the war. Followed by the exceptionally atmospheric image of Mulan crying in the rain under the great stone dragon. Nothing beats the dramatic weight of Mulan bravely taking her father’s place by flawlessly cutting her hair and riding off to battle. Mulan wears at least two Chinese dresses, but her armor is far more recognizable.
Only her bickering ancestors can help her now. As well as the willing miniature red dragon ex-guardian Mushu. Eddie Murphy’s comedic timing is always hilarious, so it was about time he voiced a wacky Disney sidekick. What Mushu lacks in size or intimidation, he makes up for in helping Mulan pass as a man. Like all great crossdressing movies, Ping is comedy gold. But it doesn’t initially go over well with her fellow brothers in arms. Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, and Jerry Tondo voice a fun trio of soldiers who grow to value Ping/Mulan over time. There’s the hot-headed Yao, cocky Ling, and gentle giant Chien-Po. Their company is overseen by the Captain’s son Li Shang. A physically fit warrior Disney Prince with the voice of BD Wong who’s eager to make his father proud. Shang snaps his men into shape with a series of exercises that teach strength & discipline. Mulan falls behind at first, but I cheer every time she becomes the first one to retrieve the arrow from the top of the post.
The guys warm up to Ping in a hilariously risque bathing scene, but it’s the mutual respect of Shang that she values more. Shang & Mulan have a unique Disney relationship to say the least. Shang’s value of Ping as a soldier only becomes love when he finds out who she really is. Which was probably confusing for him. Mushfu helps the army see some action and it leads to the aftermath of the Hun’s scorched village. Disney doesn’t sugarcoat the devastating implications of the war. It leads to a last stand at a snowy mountain pass that Ping/Mulan wins by cleverly launching a canon that causes an avalanche. She rakes up a serious body count that takes out almost the entire Hun army. Unfortunately her wound reveals her identity.
Mulan discovers Shan Yu’s siege on the forbidden City and it’s only by thinking like a strong woman that she’s able to rescue the Emperor. Mulan using her fan against Shan Yu makes her the ultimate Disney badass. That’s all the more satisfying when Mushu finishes him off with a devastating fireworks explosion. Making Mulan the first Disney Princess to inadvertently cause the death of her villain. I bow in appreciation every time Mulan is honored for the hero she is. It’s just as emotional to see her father love her for who she is. Since proving herself was always most important, Mulan & Shang don’t kiss, but decide to take their blossoming romance slow. Mulan does however kiss Mushu after he’s reinstated as a guardian. Mulan is like a an ancient Chinese painting brought to life. With all the soft character designs that you’d expect. The beauty of its setting is only enhanced by seamless computer animated sequences. The avalanche and Chinese palace are enormous, but the massive crowds are even more impressive. A whole new crowd simulation software had to be created just to achieve it.
Despite the limited use of original songs, Mulan still makes perfect use of its soundtrack. No Oscars were won, but you don’t find music like this every dynasty. Only 4 songs are sung in the movie unless you count the credits pop song “True to Your Heart.” “Honor to Us All” is an exaggerated number about a woman’s role in Ancient society. It’s almost the mirror version of the more stereotypical male war chant “A Girl Worth Fight For.” A catchy song about the men’s ideal woman that takes a sharp turn at the end. “Reflection” is another one of my favorite longing songs by a Disney Princess. It’s deeply personal and the perfect makeup removal is oddly satisfying. We have the pop version to thank for making Christina Aguilera a star. There are so many amazing Disney songs, but I actually consider the Donny Osmond sung “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” to be my favorite. Has there ever been a more manly fist pumping training montage. Topped off by a satisfying “Heyaw!” Mulan reflects only the best Disney has to offer.