I feel like “Mulan” is one of those movies where even if you’ve never seen it you’ve certainly heard of it, especially if you’re a Disney fan. “Mulan” is the one where a young Chinese girl dresses in drag and enlists in the army, teaming up with pre-“Shrek” Eddie Murphy to fight some evil grey people and find themselves along the way. “Mulan” is often regarded as one of the strongest films in the latter half of the Disney renaissance, and I completely agree with that assessment; I think it’s one of the few films from that period that I would put on par with “The Little Mermaid“, “Beauty And The Beast” and “The Lion King” as a near-perfect movie (though “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” is also pretty spectacular, save for the odd bit of tonal whiplash). Upon re-watch, it was a lot faster-paced than I remembered it being. “Beauty And The Beast”, “The Lion King”, and “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” were all fairly laid-back, but “Mulan” breezes along at a pace more like “The Little Mermaid’s”, presumably because it has a lot of characters and a lot of ground to cover – from Mulan’s little village to the Imperial City.
While I usually remember how exciting and emotional this movie can get (because there are scenes that are painful to watch), I always manage to forget how damnably funny it is. It easily ranks up there with “Robin Hood” as one of the funniest movies the studio has ever produced, especially once Mulan gets to that training camp with her fellow soldiers and they bond through their shared suffering. And even then, the hilarity and lightheartedness of the second act loops back around to emotional devastation in the last act. “Mulan” has one of the best cases of intentionally invoked mood whiplash I’ve seen in the Disney canon. Li Shang’s troops – Mulan and company included – start to enjoy themselves on their journey and since they don’t take anything that’s happening seriously neither do the audience, until they’re abruptly reminded that they’re in a war movie and people fucking die in wars, including innocent people. Despite being at least partially a comedy, “Mulan” doesn’t shy away from the reality of death. In fact, the body count in this movie is incredibly high; it claims guards, imperial scouts, numerous villages, hundreds of soldiers, thousands of Huns, and one Great Stone Dragon. It’s pretty insane. Really though, I think the most remarkable thing about “Mulan” might be how it manages to take some Disney renaissance tropes that were starting to wear out their welcome by “Pocahontas”, like the rebellious princess and the comedy sidekicks, and make them fresher and more engaging than they had ever been before; this is what earns “Mulan” it’s status as the best film in the second half of the Disney renaissance.
Fa Mulan is a young girl living in a small village in Ancient China; she’s reached marrying age and she’s ready to head off and make her family proud. She does not succeed. Mulan is portrayed as someone who’s more of a tomboy than traditionally feminine, though she’s constantly pressured to be the latter by her peers and her neighbors; only her family accepts (and in her grandmother’s case, encourages) her odd quirks. She’s also somewhat lazy, getting her dog to do her chores for her and attempting to cheat on her matchmaking test. In spite of that, Mulan is very sharp, perceptive and observant; she has a considerable amount of intellect that probably would have never been put to good use if her life had gone differently. Most of all, Mulan is a gentle soul; a loving, loyal and compassionate daughter who wants to make her parents proud of her; and a headstrong spirit with a lot of courage. Throughout the first act of the film, Mulan grows upset about not only having the path of her life already planned out for her but being unable to follow the path, having to force herself to be something that she’s not while not having a voice of her own in her sexist society: her identity crisis is at war with her desire to honor her family. Her brash, outspoken, questioning side bubbles to the surface several times only to be promptly shut down each time it does (the scene where her father snaps at her to reinforce the law of the land is probably the most hurtful moment in the film), seemingly forced to stand by and let her father die in a war because it’s not her place to say or do anything. Until she makes a stubborn, defiant choice that changes the course of her life, and it is incredibly inspirational.
Mulan masquerades as a man and takes her father’s place in the draft. While this is a great plot development on it’s own (and makes for some great fish-out-of-water comedy), I love the fact that it’s not entirely a selfless decision. It keeps Mulan from feeling too perfect and gives her a personal stake in her new dilemma. Because of her constant failures, Mulan’s self-worth bottomed out at the start of the movie and she wants to prove something to herself; she wants to keep her dad safe and prove she can do something right, something worthwhile. Mulan is stubborn enough that she rarely ever gives up, even when the opportunity presents itself (pushing herself to meet the standards set by the other men), and the one time she actually does give up, after she’s been unmasked and abandoned in the mountains, it’s treated as her reaching her threshold of despair. Throughout the movie, Mulan tries to conform to gender stereotypes to get ahead. She tries to be the stereotypical woman and fails. She tries to be the stereotypical man and gets farther but still fails. It’s when she fights as herself – using her brains, the skills she gained from her army training, and the lessons she learned from her journey – that she triumphs. I’ll give her kudos as well for killing the villain herself (with Mushu’s help), which is still one of the few times a Disney princess has gotten to do that. Mulan blew that sucker up. At the end of the day, Mulan gets some new friends, appreciation from the freaking emperor himself, and returns home to reconcile with her father – and that’s more than she could ever have wanted. Mulan not only brings new dimensions to the rebellious Disney princess trope, she also has one of the most affecting and satisfying character arcs in the Disney renaissance (right up there with Simba’s) and I do love her for that.
The role of the comedy sidekick is reinvigorated as well, since it started to grow stale and seemingly obligatory after “The Lion King”. Eddie Murphy’s Mushu is actually nearly as loud-mouthed and anachronistic as the gargoyles from “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame”, but the pivotal difference between them is one, he’s actually funny; two, there’s only one of him; and three, he actually has a character arc. I actually can’t imagine this movie without Mushu in it, since he adds so much. Eddie Murphy is on a roll throughout the film, clearly relishing his character’s sharp tongue, snarky personality and quick wit, essentially playing himself as a dragon. At the start of the film, both Mulan and Mushu are troublemakers who cause destruction wherever they go and as such, no one really likes them that much or understands them, but while Mulan sets out to do something dangerous to prove something to herself, Mushu has more selfish motivations in mind and wants to prove himself to others. Mushu, with his sharp sassy tongue, gets many of the best lines in the movie and he alternates between continually getting Mulan into mischief (all the other soldiers hating Mulan on their first day at camp can pretty much be laid at Mushu’s feet), helping to move the plot forward behind the scenes, and bonding with the girl he assigned himself to. Towards the last act, Mulan and Mushu finally harness their destructive abilities for good and start using them against the huns, becoming genuine friends in the process. And as their own wants and needs and inadequacies fall to the side, becoming unimportant, Mushu helps her to save China. For a comedic character, Mushu helps to contribute to the heart of the film in the end, embracing the power of friendship, and he does so rather well.
I’m not sure how I feel about Crikee though. The lucky cricket Mulan receives from her grandmother that follows her on her journeys is a cute but entirely bland character that’s mostly only there to act as a straight man to Mushu. I think Crikee’s best moment is tearfully and dramatically admitting he’s a fraud; Crikee figured since everyone else was lying through their teeth in this movie he might as well not be left out. The Disney canon notably has a small line of semi-anthropomorphic, silently opinionated horses (like Samson from “Sleeping Beauty” or Phillipe from “Beauty And The Beast”) that comes to a head with Maxmus in “Tangled”. So you’ll want to pay attention to Mulan’s pompous horse and third sidekick, Kahn, who’s quietly the most savage and loyal character in this movie. He makes as much, if not more, of a mark on this movie as Crikee. Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou, is an aging war hero and a man who’s frequently torn between being a loving father and husband to his family, and his duty to uphold the family’s honor and make sacrifices for his country (something which was gravely important for everyone in China during this movie’s time period). He’s a man who’s been around for a long while and seems like he should have a lot of wisdom, but he still has some growing left to do of his own. One could easily see Fa Zhou as a more grounded and sympathetic spin on King Triton’s character. At one point, Fa Zhou gets fed up with Mulan disrespecting the ways their society works and reprimands her for it, shutting down her abnormalities, and then he has to spend the rest of the movie worrying about whether or not she’s going to be murdered by some enemy soldier far far away from home, or by her own comrades- which has to be terrifying and causes the man to reassess what he values.
Mulan trains with a number of men in the Chinese army, but naturally only a few of them are given personalities. I like to think of the comedic trio – grouchy tough guy Yao, funny-man Ling and the introverted giant Chen-Po – as expies of the Three Stooges living in Ancient China – i.e. the fat one, the skinny one, and the one with the attitude problem. Mulan manages to get on the trio’s bad side very early on, and two of them spend a section of the film being petty, aggressive jerks in retaliation, but they mellow out after a training montage. Impressively, Yao, Ling and Chen-Po manage to really grow on you throughout the movie, often feeling like a cross between vitriolic buddies and misfitted brothers. They fit the mold of comedy sidekicks and could easily feel redundant, but instead they feel like an essential part of this story, not only so Mulan can learn how men interact but also experience the camaraderie that goes on within military ranks. I’ve always enjoyed friendship arcs as much as any romance in the Disney canon and it’s very satisfying (and at times sweet) watching the trio grow progressively close to Mulan, considering her a good friend as a man and a woman, and having each other’s backs to the point where they trust her with their lives by the climax. It’s implied at the end, that by being one of the bravest people they know, Mulan has greatly changed their formerly chauvinistic view of women and they have a much better chance now of ever finding their dream girlfriends (they do indeed get girls in the sequel).
Captain Li Shang, the men’s taciturn drill sergeant, is a promising young soldier and like several other characters in this film, Shang wants to prove himself. He’s spent several years learning how to be a soldier and a commander from his war hero father and now he’s ready to take the reins. Having grown up in the military, Shang can be stern and efficient but he also has little to no social skills, and quaintly enough still has an awkward boyish streak when it comes to talking to people in a normal environment. Shang has one of the emperor’s councilmen, Chi Fu, riding his back throughout the movie, accusing him of nepotism (as much of an ass as Chi Fu is, there may be some truth to that), and he’s hit very hard by the price of war. There’s an unspoken rule that if you want to be a protagonist in a Disney movie, you need to have at least one dead parent. Mulan saved both of hers with her cross-dressing gambit, so the Disney grim reaper claimed Shang’s instead in the film’s most morose scene (you know Mulan went to comfort him partly out of guilt). Shang soldiers on past his loss and grows to become an even better leader, partly because of Mulan changing the way he does things and asking him the hard questions about his biases. If there is one thing that bothers me about Shang, it’s that the Mulan / Shang ship feels pretty tacked on towards the end. It’s clear that Shang reciprocates Mulan’s crush on him so she can be paired off by the end, but it feels weird since he never feels that way about her until the last five minutes of the movie (unless you subscribe to the theory that Shang was picking up the signals ‘Ping’ was throwing out and quietly questioning his sexuality throughout the movie).
The film’s antagonist, Shan Yu, isn’t the most complex villain, since he’s portrayed more as a beast or a force of nature than a mage or a criminal mastermind, but he still has a fascinating and intimidating presence in this movie, partly because of how different his motivation is from the usual members of Disney’s rogues gallery, who are out for money or power. Pride and bloodlust are the vices driving Shan Yu throughout the movie. The Huns in this film are warriors and invaders who are notorious for their high track record when it comes to conquest. China builds the Great Wall to protect their nation and keep the Huns out, which of course, offends Shan Yu and bruises his pride. He sees the Emperor’s move as a challenge, so he makes his way across China, killing anyone and everyone in his path, so he can kill the emperor and take China for his own; prove himself mightier than all of China’s military and a superior leader. It’s insane, but it’s exactly what a murderous general drunk on power would do. Shan Yu’s personality tends to be cool, confident, smug and only occasionally temperamental, since he has total faith in his abilities. It’s only when his plans begin to unravel entirely in the last act because of one individual (guess who?) that he starts to experience sanity slippage and gets increasingly sloppy and desperate, leaving himself vulnerable. Something that’s both odd and immediately striking about Shan Yu and his band of bloodthirsty brutes is their character designs: they have pale grey skin and blackish-golden eyes that seemingly lack pupils. It honestly leaves you wondering if they’re meant to be human or if they should probably get that skin condition checked out (ironically, Shan Yu still manages to be one of the more attractive Disney villains, like Rourke and Clayton).
The film’s secondary antagonist, Chi Fu, is a whiny, treacherous bitch. The fact that he’s also a whiny, sexist bitch who’s completely useless only makes him more annoying. Chi Fu is weaselly, self-important bureaucrat who accompanies Li Shang and his troops on their journey to keep an eye on them and report on their progress; he’s also the one who tries to have Mulan killed when she’s exposed as a woman. He serves his purpose as the movie’s most ugly, unsympathetic example of ancient Chinese sexism, and James Hong’s presence in this movie does lead it to unintentionally and amusingly foreshadow “Kung Fu Panda” twice with an order of pan-fried noodles and a panda, but aside from that there’s not much else to say about him. He noticeably has no redeeming qualities, since he’s petty, spiteful and unrepentant to the bitter end; he doesn’t grow at all as a character; and he lacks the hyper-competence and cool charisma that makes Shan Yu an interesting villain. He receives his comeuppance in the end, courtesy of the emperor, when he gets unceremoniously fired from his beloved position and it is incredibly satisfying.
You can tell times and animators were changing by this point at Walt Disney Animation Studios, because the art style of this film resembles some of the more notable movies from the early 2000’s like “Lilo And Stitch” than the early renaissance films (in fact, “Mulan”, “Lilo and Stitch” and “Brother Bear” were all animated at the same studio in Florida, shortly before Disney gave up on traditional animation) “Mulan” has some unique, stylized character designs (check out how thick and bushy Mulan’s eyebrows are, compared to the more thin and dainty brows Disney princesses usually have), and a rich and pronounced color scheme with soft, lustrous, bouncy backgrounds meant to evoke classic Chinese watercolor paintings. Depending on what the scene requires, “Mulan’s” aesthetic can easily be soft and gentle or harsh and sharp at a moment’s notice. particularly during the nighttime scenes. The integration of CGI with traditional animation is handled well, with only one or two shots feeling out of place (like a rather distracting CGI flag waving behind Chi Fu). The avalanche sequence in the mountains is the visual centerpiece of the film, with a sweeping spectacle of thousands of Huns descending on the Chinese army only to be overwhelmed by a thundering cascade of snow sent down by our heroine, followed closely by Mulan and Shan Yu’s showdown on top of the Emperor’s palace.
Surprisingly, the songs have less of an influence in this movie than most Disney musicals, since there’s only five of them, but they each manage to have staying power. “Honor To Us All” is a peppy, infectious opening number whose upbeat tone runs almost contrary to the eyebrow raising, propaganda-like lyrics, describing the attitudes of the time (Granny Fa’s smooth solo verse is the song’s highlight for me). “Reflection” is another one of Disney’s impassioned ‘I Want’ songs, sung beautifully by Lea Salonga, that has a bit of an interesting history to it. “Reflection” was meant to be several verses longer than it turned out to be before it was trimmed down for time and to avoid repetition, which was the right call to make. Many of the extended lyrics are kept in the end credits rendition Christina Aguilera performs, where they’re arguably handled much better, and provide a fascinating glimpse into Mulan’s mindspace and her growing frustration with her lot in life at the start of the film. “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” has become the movie’s signature song and contains a truly awesome performance from Donny Osmond as Li Shang whips his troops into shape, turning them from a complete trainwreck to a ragtag bunch of soldiers in a matter of minutes through the power of a montage. “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is a cute group number and bonding song that’s probably the weakest number of the bunch, and “True To Heart”, performed by Stevie Wonder, provides just the right positive outlook for the movie to end on. Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the film is pretty much perfect. He deftly blends a full traditional orchestra with 90’s pop-synth elements, composing a number of cues that truly elevate the emotions of the film, like when Mulan decides to leave home or when the Huns rise from their intended tombs in the mountains, enraged but completely undeterred.
“Mulan” is a strong musical that has just the right of mix of everything I like to see in a Disney movie. The first half is an enjoyable film but the second half is phenomenal, and I definitely consider it to be a modern day classic.
* Disney princesses are always younger than they look, presumably because girls mature faster than boys. For the longest time, I thought Mulan was supposed to be 19 or 20, but it turns out she’s actually 16, the same age as Ariel. That led me to wonder if Yao, Ling and Chen Po are also meant to be teenagers. That would certainly explain their immaturity.
* “Honorable ancestors, please help Mulan impress the matchmaker today…. Please, please help her!”
* “I should have prayed to the ancestors for more luck!” “How lucky can they be? They’re dead”.
* Granny Fa walks out into the street, blindfolded, and causes a major traffic accident that I know she can hear, and she gives zero fucks. I like you, Granny.
* “Please bring honor to us, please bring honor to us, please bring honor to us, please bring honor to us, please bring honor to us aaaalllll!!!” Prince Zuko loathes this song.
* After she was set on fire, I don’t think the matchmaker interviewed anymore people that day. I always imagine the other brides were super pissed at Mulan for ruining that for them.
* “Tell me, how many men does it take to deliver a message?” “One” I’ve always loved that creepy line. Sweet dreams, kids.
* “My powers are beyond your mortal imagination! In fact, my eyes can see straight through your armor!” Mulan slaps him.
* “That’s it! Dishonor! Dishonor on your whole family! Make a note of this, Crikee! Dishonor on you! Dishonor on your family! Dishonor on your cow!”
* There are so many shots of characters invading each other’s personal spaces in this movie. Part of it has to do with this being a war film, but if you were to take a shot every time someone got in someone else’s grill, you’d be so wasted by the end of it.
* “Wait, you forgot your sword! My little baby’s heading off to destroy people” That sounds like a joke, until you realize it’s foreshadowing the Hun massacre later in this movie.
* “I’ll get that arrow for you, pretty boy, and I’ll do it with my shirt on!”
* Disney has had their protagonists get naked before and snuck that past the censors (in fact, Beast had a full-on bathing scene that was only concealed by his fur), but “Mulan” somehow tops that with a full-on skinny-dipping scene. Mulan gets so uncomfortable that she briefly forgets to do her man voice, and luckily the trio aren’t that bright so they don’t notice.
* If you ever want to mess with someone, have them listen to “A Girl Worth Fighting For”, without giving them any context about what it is. Those interesting lyrics will certainly leave an impression.
* Everything that happens in the mountain scene is completely impossible, but I love it. Mulan is wearing plot armor so hard in this scene. She triggers an avalanche that slaughters thousands of Huns, but somehow doesn’t kill her for no reason other than being the protagonist. She and Shang even get swallowed up by it at one point and survive unscathed.
* “AUGH! We’re gonna die! Definitely gonna die! There ain’t no way we’re surviving this! Death is coming, girl!” Mushu, what’s this ‘we’ talk? You’re a spirit dragon, you’re probably gonna be fine. It’s Mulan and Shang who are gonna bite it.
* I like that the big liar revealed moment is not totally contrived but the natural consequence of something that was inevitable. Eventually, Mulan would be injured, doctors would tend to her and she’d be exposed as a woman. The fact that she didn’t see this coming is a testament to how much she’s been winging it throughout the movie.
* There’s something that just feels right about ending a movie where a woman dresses as a man to go to war with her fellow men dressing as women to beat the bad guys. Unexpected role reversal.
* “It’s just some concubines” “Ugly concubines” That joke gets even funnier when you remember one of those concubines is an actual woman.
* Ironically, it’s the villain who has the most minor reaction to Mulan being a girl. “Oh, so it was this chick who wiped out my army and ruined everything for me? Well, at least I know who to murder now”.
* I’ve always found that face Fa Zhou makes at the end amusing. He seems completely unimpressed with poor Shang.
* “Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don’t know? Somehow I cannot hide, who I am though I’ve tried. When will my reflection show, who I am inside?! When will my reflection show who I am inside!”
* Nostalgia Critic; AnimatedKid; The Animation Commendation; Katejohns619; Silver Petticoat; Disneyfied Or Disney Tried; A Year Of A Million Disney Dreams; Tor; Author Quest; Roger Ebert; Jaysen Headley Writes; All The Disney Movies; A Year With Walt; Healed1337; Coco Hits NY; EFReviews; Critically Touched; Jamie’s Film Thoughts; Striking Film Reviews; Jo Writes Stuff; Film Music Central; Drew’s Movie Reviews; Life In Review; La La Film; Gary Wright Online; A Selenator’s View; Dr. Film; Thoughts Of A Steel Monster; Worthy Of Note Reviews; Man With A Movie Blog; Lolo Loves Films; Ancient Standard; Variety.
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