[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Rita Hsiao, Philip LaZebnik, Chris Sanders, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer | Director: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook | Aired: 06/19/1998]
“You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.” – The Emperor
Taken at its simplest level, Mulan is a well-made and highly entertaining animated feature based off an ancient Chinese legend. Taken at a deeper level, it’s a telling story about family duty and the preservation of honor. But at its most intricate, Mulan is a tale of female empowerment, one as sly and subtle as has ever been put to film.
Released near the end of the period many enthusiasts dub “the Disney Renaissance”, Mulan was an innovative breakaway from the typical “Disney princess” fable that had been the studio’s forte for several decades. The story centers on Fa Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to join the Chinese army and fight the invading Huns. There’s none of that “Someday my prince will come” cutesiness here. Well, not much of it.
The first thing that strikes you about the character of Mulan is how un-princess-like she is. As voiced by Ming-Na Wen (Melinda May on Agents of SHIELD), she exhibits a bright and exuberant personality, with occasional flashes of tomboyishness. That last trait doesn’t do her much good in imperial China, where young women are prepped and preened in the most ladylike of manners to bring honor to their future husbands, and talking in public without permission is strictly frowned upon.
As the movie makes abundantly clear in its opening minutes, Mulan doesn’t care much for this mold. She holds little regard for the matchmaking ceremony, jotting notes down on her arm and arriving unfashionably late to the beautician’s. Her appointment with the matchmaker is nothing short of a disaster, demonstrating that she’s just not cut out for the fair maiden life.
Through much of the movie, and the early scenes especially, Mulan is shown gazing at her reflection. In the beautician’s parlor, in a garden pond, in the polished headstones of her ancestors… Mulan sees the woman she is, and simply isn’t satisfied. While her song, “Reflection”, is a little on-the-nose, it conveys the two sides of Mulan – and the second identity she is about to adopt.
It is only when we catch Mulan’s reflection in her father’s sword that we see a woman exhuming confidence and inner strength. This is the sword she uses to cut her hair, shedding her most visibly feminine aspect, and taking on the figurative and literal mantle of a new identity. Compare the moment where she ties her shortened hair back to appear more masculine to the earlier scene where the women of the city tie her hair back to appear more feminine. Mulan didn’t show much enthusiasm at the earlier makeover; this one, she embraces.
The film does not shy away from the underlying sensitivities involved in Mulan’s disguise (which she completes with the winkingly unisexual name “Ping”), and that’s a good deal to its credit. The film’s most rousing song, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, leans heavily on the gender-bending, with constant blasts of “Be a man!” stirring up the testosterone in the crowd – before the sight of our heroine reminds us that the concept of a “man” is not as restrictive (nor, as old-world politics would teach us, as physically defining) as we might believe.
Mulan spends a good chunk of this movie surrounded by men of the military – the sort that women find attractive in theory, but who aren’t nearly as appealing in close-up. Her comrades, including the short-tempered Yao and the goofy Ling, are essentially cartoony portrayals of masculinity, and exemplify many of that gender’s more unflattering traits. (The serene and cuddly Chien-Po comes off as more of a giant goofball, though.) Their motives, as well as those of their broad-shouldered comrades, are also less compelling than those of Mulan. She has joined the Army to preserve her family’s honor without the visible risk of losing her aging father in battle, while the men in her troupe are pushed forward by the thought of what the ladies will think, as we are clearly informed of in the boisterous tune, “A Girl Worth Fighting For”.
To say that the film portrays all its men as single-minded and oafish would be an exaggeration, but Mulan is rife with implications of political correctness, stemming even outward to the villains. The Huns, a vicious group of barbaric pillagers with pale skin and frozen sinister expressions, resemble fearsome, deadly zombies, a metaphor driven home when several of them rise from the grave of a crushing avalanche. Their leader, Shan-Yu, has an especially frightening design, complete with deathly black irises surrounding sickly yellow pupils, but he hasn’t much motivation for attacking China – his reasoning, as it were, that the Great Wall challenged his sense of power. This need for superiority in strength speaks to another trait associated with masculinity, although the film never visibly associates the madman’s destruction with his gender. The closest the film comes to illustrating the point comes in middle of the second act, when he is led to a village ripe for pillaging with the help of a simple feminine doll.
Still, it must be noted that a few male characters shine through in the film – Mulan’s father and the Chinese Emperor in particular exhibit wisdom and understanding. But the most prominent male in the film is Shang, the Captain who helms Mulan’s division, and, lest we forget, the only man in the camp who looks good with his shirt off. Like Mulan, Shang is fighting to preserve the honor of his family, and he is determined to train his men through strength and discipline.
Those two factors are physically represented, so he explains, by the two weights each soldier must have strapped to his wrists in the attempt of the first challenge: climbing a pole to retrieve an arrow. Naturally, Shang encourages this test as one of physical prowess, but Mulan is not the kind of person – woman or man – who puts stock in her physical strength, and with some creative thinking, she uses the weights to her advantage to complete the task. What’s most interesting here is that it’s not a case of Mulan taking a general brains-over-brawn approach – rather, she’s using her brains to turn the “brawn” aspect in her favor. Mulan never stops to preach to us that ingenuity beats physicality, because that’s not its message. By showing its heroine as brave, intelligent, and resourceful, it conveys to us how strength can be used in the most effective fashion.
Note the scene of the mountainside showdown with the Hun army, when Mulan uses a cannon not by aiming at the Huns themselves, but by aiming at the snow-capped mountains, taking all the villains out in a single avalanche. Again, it’s her resourcefulness that catalyzes her physical feats, giving her an edge over the simplicities of pure muscle. (Recall also that Mulan first gets the idea to start an avalanche after she catches the reflection of the mountaintops on her sword. Again, reflective surfaces are key in shaping her decisions.)
So much focus is put on Mulan’s resourcefulness that there’s surprisingly little room given for romance. While there are some clear sparks flying between her and Shang, much of their attraction is implied rather than felt. This is another storytelling choice to the film’s credit – Mulan is not defined by the men around her (quite the opposite, actually), and she’s also not the extra-girly type to go irrepressibly fawning over the hunky captain – at least not explicitly so. (I do love her facial expression when he takes off his shirt on the training grounds.) The most honest portrayal of his affection for her, as unromantic as it may seem, may be the fact that he chooses not to kill her after learning her secret.
And once Mulan’s secret does get out and she is left behind, we get one last literal reflective moment – this time, in her father’s helmet. Again, it’s a forlorn and disdainful expression, the kind we saw when she gazed earlier at her ancestor’s tombstones. And although earlier in the film, seeing her face reflected in the surface of battle gear strengthened her will, it here serves to show her as less of a soldier and more of… well, a girl. But it’s only when we’re rearmed with the notion that Mulan is indeed a girl that we’re ready for the thematic upset of the film’s climax.
Mulan is not especially subtle when it comes to denigrating female societal roles – especially through the crushingly sexist dialogue of the Emperor’s correspondent, Chi-Fu – but it comes up with new and clever ways to drive home its feminist angle, right through its third act. The plan to have her fellow warriors dress as concubines is a clever reversal of the film’s primary plot, and the use of sashes to climb up the sides of the palace (channeling Mulan’s earlier shimmy up the pole with the weights) is a worthy commentary that the elements of strength and discipline can be found even in simple feminine attire. But it’s the reprise of the “Be a man!” verse from “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” that truly sells the sublimity of the scene. The label of “man” has by this point in the film become so flexible that it’s lost nearly all its initial meaning – a fact that the filmmakers are all too aware of.
Yet as much as I enjoy the role reversal scenario, there is one moment in the climax that stands out in its feministic implications above all the rest. Recall the scene on the rooftop which features the final showdown between Mulan and Shan-Yu. At one point, the vengeful Shan-Yu thrusts his sword at Mulan, only for her to block it with her fan and twist it from his grip. This little moment seals the deal on Mulan‘s female empowerment message. Why?
We last saw Mulan’s fan during the matchmaker’s proceedings, where she displayed no clue as to how to use it. She attempted to fan out the flames on the matchmaker’s pants (only to spread the fire), and showed little skill in coordinating it in the patented “proper” fashion. (Also worth mentioning: Immediately after she recited the customary speech, the matchmaker checked the back of her fan – a sign that it’s not irregular for potential brides to hide notes there. Mulan, of course, had instead written notes on her arm, another sign that she’s unaware of how to “use” the fan.)
But during the climax, for the first time in the whole film, Mulan wields the fan confidently, putting the stereotypically feminine object to creative physical use. The fact that she does so by facing up to the man-monster Shan-Yu and his powerful, deadly, and – let’s not kid ourselves here – somewhat phallic, sword should leave no doubt that she has proven herself to be just as strong-willed as any of China’s celebrated male warriors. When she twists the sword from Shan-Yu’s grasp, she essentially emasculates him. And as a final touch, she uses that very sword in an inventive (yet not directly violent way), pinning his clothes to the roof and leaving him no means to escape an explosive doom.
Mulan returns home a hero, and with souvenirs of victory in hand. These her father casts aside, however – though he may regard honor above all else, he sees Mulan’s actions as true heroism, and the highest honor of all.
It’s an intensely dramatic story all around, especially when you consider the film’s kid-friendly rating. That said, however, the drama is at times undercut by some rather obtrusive comedy. The material surrounding Yao, Ling, and Chien-Ho is often very funny, and fits in well with the film’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of masculinity. But other sources of humor seem forced in to entertain the small fry. As with most Disney films, there’s a wacky animal sidekick – Mushu, a red dragon out to prove himself as a capable Guardian of the Fa family. Although Eddie Murphy’s portrayal is lively and ingratiating, and some of his lines are genuinely funny, Mushu simply feels like he belongs in another, less weightily dramatic film. (He also gets a sidekick of his own, in the form of a small cricket who may or may not be “lucky”; even for a less deeply serious film, this would feel like a comic relief overload.)
But perhaps the biggest comedic issue – and the biggest issue with the film’s story overall – is the portrayal of the ancestors. Here we have the spirits of the men and women who have watched over the Fa family for generations, and instead of depicting them as fiercely tethered to the drama, they hang around like a bunch of grouchy old codgers at a nursing home. There’s no means of serious investment in their actions, and the celebration they have once the war is over is an irritating note to close the film on.
But warts and all, the story of Mulan is where its meat lies. But there are plenty of other aspects to enjoy about the film. The animation, for example, is simply marvelous to look at. Character designs are sharp and angular, yet they move as fluidly as normal humans (with the occasional added exaggeration of cartoony effect). Mulan’s design perfectly accommodates the film’s needs – her face is a cherubic oval, pretty and modest in its regular state, then youthful and strong when she adopts her male guise. Shang gets a relatively square-jawed, human design (the better for him to appear handsome), while most of the supporting characters get their own unique looks, livening up the world even if they’re only onscreen for a scene or two. The backgrounds, while sometimes sparse, tap into the painted wonders of Imperial China, giving the whole film an authentic ancient feel.
The voices, supplied by a primarily Asian cast, are plenty of fun, with James Hong (Chi-Fu) and Gedde Wantanabe (Ling) as standouts. June Foray is also fun as Mulan’s grandmother, one of the few unflatteringly portrayed women in the film. (“Sign me up for the next war!” she whistles upon seeing Shang.) the actors have plenty of fun with their roles, bringing life to the characters and helping the writers turn their two-dimensional forms into three. The score (by Michael Kelly) is as lively as the characters, and the songs (from Matthew Wilder and David Zippel) are enjoyable without throwing off the pace of the story.
Mulan is not a perfect film, or even one of Disney’s best efforts. Its messages are at times too heavy-handed, and it can veer wildly between its dramatic and comedic elements. Still, I’d be lying if I said I thought it wasn’t a thoroughly enjoyable film, and a fine example of Disney Studios in their prime. It boasts great animation and a lot of fun characters, as well as some surprisingly thoughtful storytelling. Like its immensely appealing lead, there’s a lot more to Mulan than you’d expect.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ I always liked the “single grain of rice” transition at the beginning of the film. It’s a clever nod to ancient Chinese metaphors.
+ During the “Honor to Us All” song: “Boys will gladly go to war for you.” This movie never misses a trick, does it?
+ Mulan’s flustered attempts to come up with a name for herself when Shang asks, and Mushu having fun with the situation.
+ Many of Mulan’s attempts to appear “manly” – strutting, punching Yao, and the gross-out moment when she attempts to spit on the ground.
+ I’m not typically a fan of training montages, since they’re generally used to cut corners and move past the heavy stuff. But the montage accompanying “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is spectacular, portraying the exercises Shang’s troops go through as arduous yet funny, and providing a solid turning point (Mulan climbing the pole) toward their successes.
+ Speaking of the pole-climb: The moment when Mulan, nearly at the top, slips a bit, and then determinedly regains her footing, all while her fellow soldiers watch, may be my favorite little moment in the entire film. It says so much not only of her personal determination, but of how she inspires those around her.
+ The bathing scene. Disney came dangerously close to tipping the film over into PG territory, but it’s all played so loosely and humorously that the censors probably didn’t mind.
+ The quiet moment of Mulan leaving the doll from the massacred village by Shang’s sword.
+ The storyboarding and direction of the avalanche and Mulan’s fight against is it fantastic. Perhaps a little over-the-top, but I’m not complaining.
+ Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po fighting the Huns… with fruit!
+ Chi-Fu getting a richly deserved fright when the Emperor tells Mulan she can take his place. (Chi-Fu’s, not the Emperor’s, that is.)