Mulan is a Disney-animated feature film that came out in 1998, directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. It was not only Disney’s first attempt at an Asian legend, but also their attempt to write a more modern Action Girl heroine instead of one of their typical Princess heroines.
Do you want to know who my hero is, though?
Look at him. He’s a member of the Regional Divisional Army, which was filled with members of the upper-class, sons who were given as labor in order to divert taxes. In exchange for land, the family was to give a man to fill in the guard, as well as outfit him with equipment and armor. This guy is not an elite soldier, and he’s probably never seen battle before. But you know what he does?
But alas, we never see him again. Probably because that Obviously Evil Dude (Shan Yu) kills him after burning the flag in front of him. In fact, he’s so evil, he probably killed him with the burning flag.
Ahem! Moving on, we next have a scene of exposition.
Once upon a time, China had no chairs. You could tell who the emperor was because he had a mat to sit on. So these guys are bowing so low out of habit. You could bow normally, guys. (It wasn’t until Buddhism, with all its foreign artifacts, that chairs and chair-sitting became a normal lifestyle of China)
Now we meet our heroine.
Like most Disney heroines, Mulan starts out her movie doing her chores. Snow White was cleaning the steps of the palace, Cinderella cooked breakfast for her ungrateful stepfamily, Sleeping Beauty was berry-picking to feed herself and her “aunts” (okay they just wanted her out of the cottage while they prepared her birthday party). As a matter of fact, Mulan’s first chore is even feeding the chickens, exactly like Cinderella. Unlike Cinderella and the rest, Mulan isn’t introduced singing about how her dreams will be handed to her on a silver plate while she’s doing her chores. Mulan wrestles her dog into feeding the chickens. Mulan is different from other heroines from the beginning, not because she’s Chinese (well there is that) but because she uses her mind.
Next we meet Fa Zhou, Mulan’s father. Considering how he’s referred to with great awe and respect by people who have never met him, he’s supposedly a great warrior, and his reflexes are still great, considering how he catches the teapot. At the point we meet him, he’s old and infirm (he has that cane for a reason). Considering this story is set during the Wei dynasty, he probably helped put the current emperor on the throne. Perhaps he was even a general for the Emperor. But now he’s living a quiet life, and he patiently puts up with Mulan’s clumsiness.
Considering that we know, going into the story, that Mulan does what she does in the interest of saving her father, it’s important that we know that her father was worth saving. So he’s given a quick comic-relief scene (his quiet prayer interrupted by the dog and the chickens), but he’s still and kind and understanding to Mulan. So we like him.
Alas! This movie needs internal conflict.
So Mulan is shown as being odd, because she’s late for things and gets messy? Oh, and she’s clumsy. You know, like any other modern heroine. Really.
Also, they call her out on her shit sometimes:
Mulan: The water is so cold!
Mother: Well it would have been warm if you had shown up on time.
They get her all prettied up and off to the matchmaker. I didn’t screencap it, but you see four other girls march off to the matchmaker. The first time I saw them, I wondered why they got prettier hairstyles than Mulan. I realized, on later viewings, the reason was twofold — one, Mulan showed up late, so they had to rush through doing her hair and just made a simple feminine bun, and two, this was literally the only time we see those girls, ever, so the character designers just went nuts on their hair because why else would they be there.
Mulan and these girls are being transformed into living dolls, by their animators and BY THEIR SOCIETY ITSELF IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT.
I like the matchmaker scene more if you don’t know what happened.
If you look beyond the matchmaker’s ample behind, you’ll notice the smoke is actually a whole bunch of spirals. This is something I noticed was consistent throughout the film.
There are countless other examples, too — the avalanche is depicted as swirly white smoke until they’re caught in the avalanche, and then it’s more like rushing water, or the clouds behind Mulan as she peers over the walls of her home are depicted as light blue swirls. The only other time I’ve seen so much over-the-top swirliness is in Sleeping Beauty, in her curls and in the forest animals. Do you typically see smoke and kicked-up-dust as spirals and swirls? It must be an artistic choice, but what is it for? To make the story seem more storylandish?
In any case, the Matchmaker informs Mulan than she will never bring honor to anyone and we have an unhappy Mulan.
You have to admit this is incredibly difficult to face. I have no idea how historically accurate the matchmaker is, or if she’s just a prop made up by the filmmakers to make it obvious that Mulan is just not made for the position she was born into. Even so, she was probably raised her whole life (like fourteen or fifteen years) to do well for the matchmaker. Kind of like how we’re raised to do well enough in high school to get into a good college, so we can get a good job, so we can find ourselves a good spouse so we can raise kids to do well in school. In Mulan’s case, instead of doing well in school, she had to do well for the matchmaker. Without a good education, what are we? Without a good husband, what is Mulan? A burden on her parents, with no future for herself.
Fa Zhou solidifies his “good daddy” image by comforting Mulan and saying that she’s just a late bloomer, just like that blossom d’awwww.
Then Chi Fu arrives.
Disney has made great leaps forward regarding Asian stereotypes, but sometimes you kind of wonder if they threw all of them into Chi Fu, just so that they could make everyone else two-dimensional characters. Seriously, look at the range of Asian faces they have:
Chi Fu is not bucktoothed, but his voice is odd and his features are more heavily stylized than the rest of the characters. Maybe he’s supposed to be more of a parody of Evil Advisor features, because he’s a (relatively) harmless secondary villain. But still, he looks more like an Asian stereotype than any of the other characters, and the beauticians in the beginning even have their eyes closed most of the time!
But plot-wise, Chi Fu shows up and orders the people of the village to give up a single male from each family to fight the evil invaders. The people who answer his call:
1) a random, healthy dude who looks like a pirate
2) a son steps forward ahead of his father and says that he will take his father’s place
3) Fa Zhou
!!!!!!!!! Fa Zhou is old and injured!
It’s important that we see who accepts the draft — first we see how the draft normally goes, then we see a son accept, because we need to establish that sons can go instead of their fathers.
Naturally Mulan is worried for her father.
It’s suddenly obvious why Mulan has a complete family, despite none of the other Disney princesses having a complete family. In fact she has her mother and (paternal) grandmother around — we need to emphasize that Fa Zhou is surrounded by females. His singular Maleness is made more obvious by every female around him. Fa Zhou is alone in being the only Fa male. This is quite a dilemma, because he can barely walk five steps without falling over. How can he go to war?
GUYS. DO I REALLY NEED TO EXPLAIN WHAT HAPPENS?
Okay. Mulan cuts her hair and runs off in the night with her horse, her father’s sword and armor, and the conscription notice. Thus is the end of her origin story, and we can kick off with the real story, right?
No. Of course not. This is Disney. Mulan ain’t gonna make it in the world without some plucky animal friends.
Her family says a prayer to their ancestors. Her ancestors apparently include:
black orange Mushu out to awaken the Great Stone Dragon, but that doesn’t go according to plan.
So Mushu, the disgraced, demoted guardian, convinces the ancestors that he’s the Great Stone Dragon:
And then off he goes, to get honor for himself and for the Fa family.
A final word on character development: THE BAD GUYS
Shan Yu is the actual bad guy of the story. He wants to kill the emperor (“By building his wall [the emperor] challenged my strength.”) He throws his considerable weight around and looks forward to killing innocent children. He’s described as a Hun warlord, but historically speaking, he’s probably Xiongnu, as the Huns were well-integrated into society by that time. He pretty much appears to want to kill the Emperor For the Lulz as it were, but there’s a more historically accurate reason for doing what he does.
The nomadic tribes of the East were ruled by a succession of warlords, who took control by force, and prevented their lieutenants from trying to overthrow them by directing their aggression outwards. Shan Yu is as scared of those guys as we are. He probably set up the invasion as a big game for his army.
Are we done with character development? ONWARDS.
Mulan doesn’t know how to act like a man. Because she isn’t a man. Her experiences with guys are much older male ancestors, and legends of ancestors and romantic poetry.
Seriously, look at those eyes.
Mulan very quickly gets into a fight.
It’s all up to one guy to whip these guys into shape!
Here’s my problem with “handsome” guys as drawn by Disney. Sure, they’re handsome, I guess, but they never do anything with their faces. Look at this guy:
Because he’s not supposed to be “good-looking” they’re willing to stretch his face to emphasize the point they want to make, and to amuse us. But Li Shang can’t do that, because he’s supposed to be handsome. Heck, he barely moves his perfect full lips. The stillness is off-putting. It makes me think that he doesn’t express emotions because he doesn’t have emotions (the expression of delight there on his face is his biggest expression). I don’t want to date a guy with no feelings. Therefore, why should I care about Shang?
Shang does that last thing all the time. He does it to like three different people. He pulls people by their collar and gets in their FACE. And still shows little expression. I did it to my boyfriend and he was weirded out. Shang: Good Captain, Bad Emoter.
After an incredibly memorable montage sequence (“We must be swift as the coursing river/ With all the force of a great typhoon/ With all the strength of a raging fire/ Mysterious as the dark side of the moooooon”), we cut to a hilarious bath sequence.
Mushu arranges for the recruits to be sent into battle. How hilarious! I see no horrific consequences for this. On their way there, the men all talk about ladies, and how much not like Mulan they want them to be.
Good thing the fresh recruits arrived to find out that the entire army had been wiped out! Now they’re China’s last line of defense. Good job, Mushu.
After letting the musicians vie for an academy award for best soundtrack, the plot moves on, faster than a speeding bullet, faster than a bloggess realizing that the academic blogpost she’s writing is really long and she needs to get this thing wrapped up.
Fight scenes tend to go too quickly to screencap, so long story short:
You guys got that, right? Mulan drowned the invaders in an avalanche, Shan Yu stabbed Mulan, and then fell into the avalanche. The good guys got out fine. It was a very exciting sequence — the kind you watch the movie for, rather than read the screencap summary of.
But Mulan and Shang were injured, but Shang “only” got hit by an arrow, whereas Mulan was injured enough to get exposed as a woman.
In the original legend, Mulan had a long, successful career, and then died and then was exposed. But Disney is about young ladies, so we’ll have her come out after just one skirmish.
And now we hit the third act — Mulan dresses and acts like a woman again. I’ve read feminist reviews which claim that Mulan was only a hero because she dressed and acted like a man — but she saves China dressed as a woman, with everyone acknowledging that she’s a woman. That point, at least, is mistaken. Besides, the parts that Disney made up were the parts were she was a girl. You can’t tell the story of Mulan without having her impersonate a man. Sorry, feminists. On that specific point you’re mistaken.
Mulan runs from person to person, trying to warn them of the incoming Huns, but no one will listen. Mushu suggests that it’s because she’s dressed as a woman again, but maybe she should try telling someone other than loiterers at the back of the crowd? To be fair, her old crew wouldn’t listen to her because she’s a liar after all.
But of course the Huns do invade, just in time for an ending climactic battle sequence! They kidnap the Emperor and lock the doors, so it’s up to Mulan to think of a way into the palace.
Another action sequence ensues. You guys. It’s a Disney movie. Interestingly, Shan Yu considers Mulan to be a Worthy Opponent, and Mulan kicks butt using skills learned as a man and a woman.
So Mulan saves the kingdom by breaking all the rules, because heroes break rules. It’s what they do. It makes you wonder why they bothered to implement rules in place.
After receiving gifts from the Emperor, she goes home, but not before being disappointed by Li Shang’s awkward speech. Hence the Emperor giving Shang encouragement right there. It’s a nice series of facial expressions. Makes me laugh whenever I see it.
I do kind of like the ambiguous ending of the story. On one hand, she doesn’t end up happily ever after with a handsome prince. Instead, she earns the love of her father, and honor for her family. But for the romantics in us, yes, it’s highly implied that she and Shang DO end up together. Just not on-screen.