It’s only fair to add a disclaimer before this article about Mulan that I am not viewing it with subjective eyes. Admittedly, not a single one of these articles has been objective, but most I’ve approached with only a few vague memories from childhood. The ones I really remembered loving were The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast – the rest I saw a lot less, though I was still fond of them. Those two were the films I kept returning to however. Then, when I was 16 I lived for a short time with a family that had two young kids, one of whom adored Mulan. What The Lion King meant to me, Mulan meant to her. The result was that I ended up watching it most weekends for a few months. This kid was like my little sister, and it was constantly a joy to revisit Disney’s version of the Chinese legend. Sometimes it would be just for half an hour, sometimes I would watch the whole thing. Either way, I became very familiar with Mulan and I learnt all the words to ‘Make A Man Out of You.’ As such, it’s impossible to approach this with anything remotely approaching subjectivity; it’s almost like trying to review an old friend of yours. But then, I probably would review my old friends (3 stars, Jon) so here goes, anyway.
First and foremost, Mulan is just an excellently made, consistently entertaining film; after the uninspired Hercules, the deadly serious Hunchback and the po-faced Pocahontas, this action packed interpretation of a Chinese legend was a kind of return to form. It opens with a guard on the Great Wall being greeted by an army of menacing Huns who are scaling it like a child’s plaything. The leader of the Huns then sets off the beacon himself, grinning in the flickering light of the fire as he awaits the response from the Chinese army. It’s a thrilling way to begin the film, dramatic and with hints of violence. After a brief clip of the army’s General responding, it then cuts to eponymous heroine, waking up late and finding shortcuts to her chores before going to meet the Matchmaker – the woman who will set her up with a man and thus bring honour to her family. Within the first ten minutes, the two crucial appeals of the film are established: firstly, it is exciting; secondly, it explores and expands the role of women far more than any Disney film has previously done, even something as relatively forward-thinking as Beauty and the Beast.
So first, the excitement. Mulan is a war story, a historical epic of a fearsome invading force and the band of rejects and underdogs who defy them. Fa Mulan is a young woman who goes to war when a conscription law forces a man from every family to fight with the army. Mulan goes in the place of her father, a crippled war veteran. Her ingenuity and determination end up defeating the Hun army… twice. It’s a consistently exciting film, and one sequence in particular, where the Hun army storm down a mountain towards the plucky heroes, is utterly breathtaking. Building on the technology used to create the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, this scene is as epic and as sweeping as Disney gets, seen from the perspective of an eagle that soars over the vast force of warriors galloping at full speed down the steep, snow covered slopes. A training montage, a firework filled finale and a score as dramatic as the action mean that Mulan is almost unrelentingly thrilling. Yes, there is a love story woven into the war narrative, but this is Disney with swords drawn.
So action packed is Mulan that it barely stops for the obligatory Disney singing. There are only four songs in the whole film and they are all in the first half. After ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’ (the weakest of the bunch), there are no more songs except a non-diegetic reprise of ‘Make A Man Out Of You’, making way instead for some magnificent action and the dramatic climax of the film. Thankfully, though, the songs are great, complimenting and expanding on the narrative but never feeling superfluous. Like many a good musical, the songs capture the emotional and thematic development of the plot, so ‘Honour To Us All,’ introduces the ideals of femininity and honour that Mulan is facing, while ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’ and ‘Make A Man Out Of You’ expand on the exploration of gender roles in ancient China. ‘Reflection,’ meanwhile, takes the grand themes and makes them personal – this isn’t about establishing gender identity, necessarily, but personal identity.
Nevertheless, the songs reveal the film’s key theme, of women standing strong in a society that doesn’t want them to. ‘Honour To Us All’ establishes how women are meant to be seen, featuring pithy lines like, ‘men like girls with good taste, calm, obedient, with good breeding and a tiny waist.’ The implications are clear: women are there to marry men and bear their children; they should be seen and not heard. ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’ reveals the expectations of women from a man’s perspective, as being good at cooking and being kind. When Mulan tentatively suggests, ‘how about a girl who has a brain, who always speaks her mind,’ she is summarily dismissed by the lads she fights with. It’s a shame that she has to end up with a man, as a large part of what she is fighting is the identity of women being rooted in their relationship to men; it undermines her biggest battle if she ends up with the buff Captain. However, a brief look at Mulan reveals her as, nevertheless, an almost feminist hero – something entirely unique for Disney.
Crucially, Mulan hasn’t got it sussed. She isn’t an infallible, kick ass heroine, but someone who is fumbling her way through a series of tricky situations and coming out on top. It’s not her abilities that make her an admirable heroine, but her motivation and determination. She takes the place of a man, and in doing so breaks down so many societal barriers surrounding women in Ancient China. She isn’t calm or obedient (although she does have a tiny waist), and she speaks her mind, everything that is seen as undesirable in women as presented in the songs. Yet she saves an entire nation. This may seem like an obvious point to be making, as if I am simply describing what the film is about, but I think it is worth pointing out just how clear Mulan’s role is: she changes the attitudes to women of an entire nation. She’s resourceful, intelligent and flawed, which immediately separates her from most Disney heroines, but her story makes her an admirable figure even outside of the Disney canon. On the point of her ending up romantically attached to the Captain, it almost feels like an addendum to the main story; she isn’t really defined by her relationship with him, and it isn’t what the film is about. It’s simply heartening to see a Disney film confront the expectations and prejudices women are lumbered with, and then go some way to dismantling them.
Mulan is a superbly animated, hugely entertaining film with amazing action sequences and a formidable heroine at the centre. As such, it stands as one of my favourites from the canon although, as I said, I may be a little biased.