Mulan (1998)

The Disney Renaissance began with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and saw a resurgent interest in the Disney Princess. However, as cultural shifts began to change how we viewed the world, it was time for a new, more active princess to draw viewers in. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas were all far more involved in their stories than Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora were. A great comparison exists between Ariel and Aurora – the former loses her voice in the middle of the film, while the latter has no lines after she is informed of her royal status. However, Ariel is still very much involved in her story than Aurora was – granted, Sleeping Beauty is still my favorite. When Mulan first appeared, we finally had a Disney Princess who came with a body count.

Mulan, voiced by Ming-Na Wen with Lea Salonga providing her singing voice, is on the precipice of womanhood, and in the time in which she lives, young women are presented to a matchmaker to find them a suitable husband. Unfortunately, Mulan is not like the other girls who are being presented. She is not as graceful or demure as they demand, which causes all manner of problems for her in the societal constraints surrounding her. Although her family loves and supports her, it is clear to them that Mulan would be better off if she were more like the prim and proper girls in town – something that Mulan laments. This is most evident in the song Reflection, Mulan’s version of the ever-present I Want Song. Mulan actively questions herself, who she is, and who she is meant to be. When she looks at her reflection, perfectly made up to meet the matchmaker, she knows that who is on the inside is not who they see on the outside, and it is painful for her to admit that she wishes the world could see who she truly was. The point of Mulan is about looking deep and self-reflecting, and it uses the typical trappings of feminine ideals to dig deep.

While the initial part of the film focuses on Mulan and her family – introducing her father, Fa Zhou (voiced by Soon-Tek Oh), her mother, Fa Li (voiced by Freda Foh Shen), and Grandmother Fa (voiced by June Foray) – the main cast is comprised of the soldiers that Mulan spends the vast majority of the film with – Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po (voiced by Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, and Jerry Tondo respectively. At first, Yao and Ling are outwardly antagonistic toward Mulan, finding her (Ping) a troublemaker who will only get in their way. You can place most of the blame for this on Mushu (Eddie Murphy as Mulan’s ‘fearsome’ dragon guardian), who is only on the assignment because he destroyed the statue supposedly holding the Great Stone Dragon that guards the Fa family – more on that later. The other important characters include General Li (James Shigeta), who has been tasked by the Emperor (voiced by Pat Morita) to oversee China’s defense, from Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), the leader of the Huns who has invaded the empire. This prompted the Emperor to dispatch his chief advisor, Chi-Fu (James Hong), to recruit one man from every family. Then, the drama begins to set in because the Fa family only has one man, who is still recovering from his injuries incurred in the last war, not to mention his advanced age.

In one of the most powerful moments of the film, with no dialogue, mind you, Mulan sets out to take her father’s place to protect him and her family’s honor. After her father shouts that it is time for her to know her place, Mulan is distraught – afraid for her father’s safety, she retreats to the Great Stone Dragon, where the scene begins. One of my favorite theories about Mulan is that Mushu could not wake the Great Stone Dragon because when she prayed to the ancestors, Mulan herself became the embodiment of the Great Stone Dragon. She became the family’s protector in mind, body, and spirit to finally allow the world to truly see the reflection of herself that she has always known is there. She was a powerful, honorable, courageous young woman who would do anything to protect her family. When Grandmother Fa prays to the ancestors, we are quickly introduced to George Takei’s role as the first ancestor and a host of other ancestors who provide comedic relief.

The last major character is the one every Disney Princess film needs (at least until the Revival Era, when we were introduced to the Disney Princess who did not need a love interest) – the love interest: Captain Li Shang (voiced by B.D. Wong with his singing voice provided by Donny Osmond). The son of General Li Shang has been given control of a group of recruits with orders to train them, with the hope that they would never need to rely on them. The film’s middle section focuses on the rough start to their training until (I’ll Make a Man Out of You) they get the hang of their training and become a well-oiled machine. As with many of the Renaissance films, Mulan has several dark moments, the most glaring being the decimated village. It is a reminder that, while this is a musical ostensibly made for children, war cannot simply be glossed over. The tenseness of the situation they find themselves in forces the group of soldiers to bond, forming a brotherhood that withstands the trauma they are flung into due to Shan Yu’s invasion.

Most films that focus on a Princess also include animal companions, and Mulan is lucky enough to have three – with Mushu being the most obvious aid, but also Cri-Kee (voiced by Frank Welker, who also provides the voice of Khan, her horse). They are there through thick and thin, aiding Mulan as best as possible, whether in lighting fire to the fuse or getting her out of scrapes. Notably, they all work to bring Mulan and Shang together at one point – while at the same time, they seek to help her, as Ping, advance in the military. That both goals are successful is a testament to their skill and dedication.

Whether it’s a musical or not, Disney films are synonymous with their musical numbers and score. Whether it’s the power ballad Reflection or the up-tempo I’ll Make a Man out of You, Mulan does not disappoint. Each song captures a moment, exploring its character’s goals or desires. However, the final song of the film A Girl Worth Fighting For comes around halfway through the film to drive home the point that the bright and cheery nature is no more. Interestingly, most of the films released by Disney follow this model – once the story truly get’s going, there seems to be no time for bombastic musical numbers. Mulan takes a G-rated approach to its darker themes, but that doesn’t mean the implications are unclear – in that village, the doll is representative of the children killed. Disney manages, time and time again, to show pain and suffering without glorifying it. There is a time and a place for certain things to be shown, and Mulan hits those beats with finesse every time. Is it any wonder that it was one of the first films to get a live-action adaptation?

The character of Mulan is well-realized. She does not know what she wants out of life but knows what she does not want. As Mulan moves through her story, she never loses her true self. She is simply discovering what she is fully capable of. Her bravery and commitment to those around her are not flaws to be exploited. Even though Shan Yu tries his damnedest to do so, they are the core of her strength. In the lead-up to the final battle, Mulan embraces her femininity, recognizing that it is not weak to be a woman or to be feminine. In reverse to her entrance to the military, her chief allies dress as women to infiltrate the palace late in the film so that they can save the Emperor from Shan Yu, as his soldiers were on the lookout for military personnel – not “concubines.” Grace and beauty are not weaknesses. Neither is strength and courage – they are not mutually exclusive, either. Mulan identifies these divisions along gender lines and rejects them, spreading a powerful message.

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