Ok, I’m going to get this off my back first, because it’s an annoyance of mine. WHY is Mulan considered a Disney Princess? She’s not royalty, she doesn’t marry royalty. I mean, ok, she saves the entirety of China, but if that were the case, there are a lot more Disney leading ladies that should be considered “Princesses.” It bugs me. It’s like in the 90s Disney just wanted to show that they were more diverse than just white girls with blonde or brown hair. I don’t have an issue with her being a princess, but if she is, then where the hell are the other “non-princesses”? Where’s Esmeralda? Where’s Meg?
Alright. But I digress. Mulan, I feel, is kinda one of those movies that people tend to forget about a bit. I’m actually having a hard time deciding whether to put this in my underrated list, or just call it under appreciated. Due to the Disney Princesses, people know about Mulan, but do they really? We all knew about this movie in the 90s, but is it one that people still know about today? The late 90s was weird for Disney. We still had financial successes, but I almost feel like the last two of the Disney renaissance (This and Tarzan) are a bit overlooked. That’s a shame, because honestly? This movie is unbelievable.
This is the second of Disney’s movies to be based on “true” events (I put true in quotes because this is actually a legend, so it’s hard to know if it’s true or not). It’s the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a woman who posed as a man in the wars for years. The Disney version follows a similar storyline:
In the beginning of the movie we see Shan Yu and his hun army attack the great wall of China, announcing to them that they are there. The emperor requests the formation of a larger army – one man from every family must fight. The general isn’t sure that they need that many people, but The Emperor reminds him that “even a single grain of rice may tip the scale – one man may be the difference between victory and defeat.”
We then cut to meet Mulan on the day of her meeting with the Matchmaker. We learn pretty quickly the Mulan is smart but kinda a klutz and not exactly the meek and obedient woman that she should be. antics get in the way with her meeting with the matchmaker, and she grows angry, claiming that Mulan will never bring her family honor.
Upset, she heads home just as the recruiters are heading into town, decrying that one man from every house must fight. Her father is the only man in their household, and injured from a former war. Mulan doesn’t understand why he has to fight, and decides it’s not fair. She makes up her mind and in the middle of the night she cuts her hair, steals her father’s armor and takes her horse and rides off to pose as a man in the army.
Her actions awaken the ancestors in her family’s temple, where the eldest decides to send the great stone dragon to retrieve Mulan and bring her home. He sends Mushu, a demoted family guardian to awaken the stone dragon, but it’s no use. Instead of returning to tell them, Mushu decides that this is his chance to prove himself. If he can advise Mulan and turn her into a war hero, his guardian status might be restored. He goes after Mulan along with Cri-kee, a lucky cricket.
Mulan, with the help of Mushu, somehow gets into the army with a few hiccups, adopts the name Ping and makes a few enemies with the other soldiers and the captain, Shang. He’s been left in charge by his father, the general, to train the new recruits. It gets off to a rough start for all, as none of them can pass the “test” Shang sets up: seeing who can reach an arrow at the top of a pole while their hands are tied down by weights. We get the best song montage EVER as Mulan realizes how hard it is to keep up and is told to go home. But she soon figures out how to reach the arrow and becomes almost respected. yay.
But Mushu is getting tired of waiting and wants to send Mulan into battle so she can become a hero. He and Cri-kee fake an order from the general to meet them near a pass in the mountains, and soon they’re off. But it turns out that the Huns got there first, and destroyed not only the village that’s there, but the entire imperial army as well. They show up in great mass to fight, and Mulan uses her smarts to cause an avalanche and destroy the entire hun army. She also gets hurt in the process, and it comes out that she’s a woman. Shang loses it and leaves with the rest of his soldiers, abandoning Mulan in the mountains.
Mulan and Mushu have a heart to heart, but something interrupts them. It’s the Huns. Shan Yu and a few of them have survived the avalanche and start their walk to the city where the emperor is. Knowing she has to warn them, she and Mushu head to the city. Shang doesn’t believe her, but her friends in the army at least seem to be open to her ideas. The Huns show up and kidnap the emperor and lock themselves in his own palace. Shang and the soldiers attempt to get in, but then Mulan shows up with an idea. Shang hesitantly joins them as they go to rescue the emperor and destroy Shan Yu. It’s a happy ending. yay.
I’m going to spend a lot of this review talking about our protagonist, Mulan. Without a good character, this movie would have plummeted. This movie is unique in Disney-dom because it really is so reliant on our protagonist. Typically we have a lot of secondary characters that are also very well defined. Not in this movie. Sure they exist, but the focus rightfully is on Mulan. She carries this movie squarely on her shoulders, and does a remarkable job.
Mulan is awesome. I almost count her and this movie as a bridge between the older disney princesses and what we’ll start seeing in the future. In the early renaissance we have female protagonists who are plucky or stubborn. They each want something, and try to get it, but one could argue they don’t really work for it. They want to stretch their legs, but you can tell they are hesitant to do so. The thing they want is a man, or their individual freedom (Belle is an apparent exception to all these rules btw. She’s in a league of her own). Mulan on the other hand, has a goal in mind and is willing to do anything to prove that she can do it. She has the chance to give up but doesn’t. She’s not looking for a man but one happens to come along. Even then, the movie doesn’t become about them. It’s about Honor. It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about fighting the huns and protecting their country.
She’s also more like our current Disney heroines in her personality. She’s got a lot of spark and is smart but has something quirky and weird about her that makes her different. She’s struggling to find her place in the world and bring honor to her family. In her klutzy way, she challenges stereotypes but doesn’t mean to – it’s just her. If anything she wants to be like everyone else. She wants to just be a good woman and marry a man. She wants to be seen as a success in her family’s eyes. At the same time, she knows that that isn’t her. She wants to be herself but isn’t allowed to. Only by breaking every single rule does she truly get to be herself. I think that’s why the goal of becoming the best man she can be is so appealing to her: it’s freeing in a way. Finally, she can be herself and show everyone what she’s really like on the inside.
The only other “major” character in this movie would be Mushu. Voiced by Eddie Murphy in his pre-Donkey days, this little dragon is as adorable as he is funny. He is trying to prove he can be a good guardian and redeem himself back into that status. He doesn’t do what the ancestors wanted. He does what he wants, but arguably what Mulan also wants. He’s an interesting character because he’s a bit on the gray side. He’s selfish and is doing a lot of these things with his own intentions in mind, but grows to actually care about Mulan. He comes clean at one point but by then it’s almost like no one cares. Mulan was always going to try and fit in and be a soldier because that’s what she wanted. Mushu acting selfishly didn’t seem to matter.
Mushu is also our main comedic relief, and believe it or not I think he hits the mark most of the time. Sure some of it is corny or pop-culture-y, but it’s not over the top, and it’s not in the way of the story. Instead, most of the humor is just funny. I honestly forgot how funny this movie was – I was laughing a LOT, even this many years later. Eddie Murphy could have been awful, but he managed to rein it in and be lovable. Every single line out of this characters mouth is hilarious. I mean, he even makes r-rated and Lion King jokes. What could get better?
Along with Mulan and Mushu are Khan (Mulan’s horse), and Cri-kee. This little guy only chirps, but I love his addition. Crickets were believed to be lucky. He’s brought to Mulan by her grandmother for luck with the matchmaker, but ends up being Mushu’s sidekick. He’s kinda pointless, but hey, let’s give a sidekick a sidekick. Why not?
In the rest of the movie, we have a plethora of supporting characters. Some are memorable, and some are not. Shang is our love interest and the son of the general to the emperor’s troops. We get the idea that this is Shang’s first real time doing anything of this caliber, and the last thing he wants is to be a failure. In this aspect, he and Mulan have a lot in common. The fact Mulan is playing a boy lends for a few awkward encounters, but in the end of the day, I think the relationship the two of them get is more “real” than a lot of Disney relationships because of the fact it couldn’t just come out in the beginning. Instead, it’s based on trust and the realization that what makes you special is what someone will like about you. It’s the idea that you don’t have to be anyone different than yourself to get people to like you, nor should you have to.
We also have a trio of soldiers that befriend Mulan in the camp (after a bad first encounter). These three may not be extremely memorable, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad characters. They’re just not as developed as some of the others. But can I ask this: Why wasn’t Harvey Fierstein a Disney character before this? his voice and the character design of Yao go perfectly.
We also have the hilarious grandmother Fa (who has the best line in the entire movie in my opinion: “Oh great, a sword. If you ask me, I think she should have come back with a man…”), the “I’m going to speak in riddles so people think I’m wise” emperor, his right hand man Chi Fu (who’s also funny), and Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou.
Then we have our villain, Shan Yu. When I was a kid and saw this movie, I thought Shan Yu was the most boring villain ever. He was rarely in the movie, and when he was, he wasn’t really that scary, at least not in the same ways that Frollo or Scar are. As I grew older, I think I’ve learned to appreciate him a bit more. What’s frightening about Shan Yu is the quiet confidence he has. He doesn’t say many words, but when he does, this guy is so sure that he’s not going to be thwarted. He’s just like “ok, you build a wall, I’m going to climb it and I don’t care if everyone knows I’m here, cause I’m a badass.” He does grow a bit more angry when we see him in the Palace, but by then everything has been taken from him and he almost realizes that he should worry a bit more about failure. He’s a strange villain but in his own way, frightening. He’s killed countless people without mercy, including children. These happen off screen, but still happens. He’s merciless. Then there’s the way he dies.
One of the other things this movie really has going for it is the atmosphere. The animation on this is beautiful. It starts with the opening credits, and watching those, I remember thinking “Ok. Disney’s gonna do ok with this one because they respect this culture.” I would know. I lived in Japan in my childhood for a total of 2 years (over 3 different trips). I understand and respect Asian culture. This could have been really bad, but it wasn’t. Disney understood it. They understood it in the art, the animation, the storytelling. The addition of the ancestors was brilliant. They understood why it was important. Thank GOD.
Anyway, back to the animation. It’s almost like watercolored backgrounds. We see the scale of the mountains and the bamboo and everything else. The palace is beautiful. The characters are well drawn and all different enough to remember (at least in looks). And I have to say the obligatory “Shang is somehow an attractive animated man.” I had SO many friends who thought that.
As far as music goes with this movie, the songs seem very hit or miss. I remember thinking when I saw this movie that it seemed bizarre that there are only four songs in this movie. I’m a kid of the 90s man! Disney movies have LOTS of songs! Well, this seemed to be when they started to phase them out. That being said, these songs aren’t bad. In fact, it has one of the most catchy disney songs ever.
Yes it’s a montage song, but it’s an amazing montage song. It conveys so much and moves the story along so well. In the span of that song, we learn that all the other soldiers are sort of in the same boat as Mulan – they don’t know much either. No one can do anything perfectly. We learn exactly how determined Mulan is, even when she’s given the chance (actually told) to leave. And we learn how to get that stupid arrow off of the pole.
This brings me to another thing: I kinda adore how this movie is secretly all about how women are smarter than men. Don’t agree? Let’s see: Mulan is the one who gets the arrow off the pole. She’s the one who thinks about using the firework thing to shoot the mountain and cause an avalanche instead of just killing one Hun. She comes up with the idea to get into the palace (all while the guys are just like “let’s pound this incredibly heavy thing on the door). She ALONE defeats Shan Yu. This girl kicks ass, and makes the guys look stupid in the process. I have no idea if this was on purpose, but it’s kinda great.
Here’s a few more random likes/dislikes about this movie:
– I love the the background music when she goes boy. There is emotion in this scene. We know the stakes. It’s done extremely well.
– Mushu was the one who actually saved China. He and Cri-kee made the fake telegram telling Sheng and his troops to meet the others in the pass. If they hadn’t done that, the huns would have gotten into the capitol – ALL OF THEM.
– There are a lot of really random unexplained things in this movie: like in the avalanche scene, she rescues Sheng on the back of her horse and they go careening over a cliff. Yao shoots an arrow and she catches it and pulls them to safety. how did she have that much time to wrap that rope around her horse?!?!? Also: in the Capitol city, What happened to the rest of their army? Now it’s just 5 of them vs the rest of the huns in the palace?
– In the end, why does no one from the crowd that’s watching go and help??? There are probably literally a MILLION of them just watching, like it’s a freaking show. That ALWAYS bugged me
– The ending is… weird. It’s like shrek: suddenly we have a dance party with Mushu and the ancestors to a song from 1998 sung by 98 degrees. They couldn’t think of anything better?
This movie is great. I always forget how much I love it, then I watch it and laugh. If you’ve never seen it, get out from under a rock and watch it. It’s funny, thoughtful, action packed, and it has a great heart. I’m glad Disney didn’t just make another love story. I’m glad they brought us a heroine who isn’t afraid to be herself. She’s up there with Belle. Just… see this movie
I give Mulan (1998) a 3.9 out of 5. The songs are hit or miss for me. some of the characters are forgettable. Everything else is good
Up Next: Tarzan (1999)