“The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.”
If The Hunchback and Notre Dame was too dark for Disney’s audience and Hercules was too silly, I think it fair to say that they found a happy medium with Mulan. The film re-tells an ancient Chinese legend about a woman who disguises herself and joins the army to spare her elderly father when one man from each family is conscripted. Various forms of the story exist, but this one opens with the introduction of Shan-Yu and the Huns, and their conflict with the Emperor of China.
What’s interesting about Mulan is that at certain points it doesn’t feel like a Disney movie; it feels like any other war movie, with people being injured and killed, while also showing the effects of war on civilians. This film is rated G, and I’m not saying it’s Saving Private Ryan, but it does take a look at some interesting topics you don’t see in a lot of family movies. They also broach the subject of gender and when, why and how things are different for women than men.
In Mulan’s first couple of minutes of screen-time, we learn a lot about her. Rather than have her talk about what she’s like, the filmmakers show us with her actions. This is where Pocahontas fell flat; Pocahontas sang about trees and nature, and her father said she was just like her mother, but there’s very little character in her actions. When a film’s principal characters don’t suck you in, it’s hard to be invested in the movie’s events. Feeling an emotional connection with one character’s personal life makes the larger conflict much more meaningful, because you’re looking at how it affects this one person and the people around her.
From the time Mulan wakes up we see that she’s often tardy for appointments, lazy, clumsy, and willing to take shortcuts to success. And while she’s on her way to the matchmaker, she shows her intelligence in the chess match, and her empathy for others when she gives a little girl her doll that’s been taken by bullies. These are small, almost throwaway gestures, but they all connect to the story later in the film. In the army Mulan has to learn to work hard and be punctual. In lesser Disney and Pixar films that have come out since, characters like Anna and Merida have many of these same traits but they don’t amount to anything. Anna is clumsy so that she can be quirky and relatable; Merida is stubborn because she just doesn’t want to be a princess anymore, darnit! Mulan knows how flawed a protagonist needs to be to still be likable and leave room for character growth.
Mulan’s appointment with the matchmaker is mostly played for laughs at the matchmaker’s expense, but we also get to see the consequences of the meeting going poorly. In not being a “perfect bride,” Mulan has disappointed her parents and dishonored her ancestors. “Reflection” is more complicated than a lot of Disney heroine “I Want” songs because what Mulan wants isn’t tangible or as huge as human legs or a life-changing adventure. It’s also one of the most beautiful songs in any Disney movie, sung perfectly by Broadway star Lea Salonga. Because of Mulan’s personality and oppressive culture, simply making her family happy and being herself is a huge challenge. In the song “Honor to us All,” the townspeople sing that “a girl can bring her family great honor in one way” and if you’re more than five years old, it’s obvious that they mean marrying an impressive man and having a bunch of babies. When the matchmaker says she won’t find Mulan a husband, she’s failed her family and society at large.
Right after “Reflection” comes another great moment in the film: Mulan’s father is not angry with her, and compares her to one flower on the tree that hasn’t bloomed yet; “But I’ll bet that when it blooms, it will be the most beautiful of all.” Almost immediately, the Chinese Army arrives in their town, ordering one man from each family to join. At dinner, Mulan begs her father not to go, but he says that “I know my place! It is time you learned yours.” But he’s too old and weak to fight; he injures himself later that night, just practicing with his sword. Something awakens in Mulan and she can’t let her father die, so she cuts her hair and steals his armor, sword and horse, leaving her hair pin in place of her father’s conscription papers. Her parents and grandmother are horrified to find her missing, but if they reveal her as a woman she’ll be killed.
On the way to the army camp Mulan meets Mushu, an obnoxious tiny dragon played by Eddie Murphy. Mushu came as Mulan’s guardian spirit against the wishes of her ancestors, who told him to send the great stone dragon. However when he tried to awaken the dragon, nothing happened. One possible interpretation is that the dragon spirit was no longer within the stone, but rather within Mulan, empowering her to save her family. Mushu has a sidekick of his own, a cricket Mulan’s grandmother had given her for good luck. I don’t know why Disney is so stuck on the sidekicks, because they’re frequently the worst part of their films. However, in the camp Mulan meets three human sidekicks, Ling, Chien Po and Yao. I like them much better than Mushu. At first the soldiers don’t like Mulan (known to them as Ping) because she causes problems with her timidness and clumsiness. The army forces Mulan to adapt and change, and over time, as Mulan becomes a better soldier and comrade, she becomes friends with the three men and gains the respect of her commanding officer, Li Shang.
Shang has his own father’s expectations to live up to. His father is the general and gives him his post, which he quickly comes to see as a challenge. His troops are some of the laziest, messiest, and most distracted in the Chinese army. It’s not as obvious as Mulan’s, but he has a character arc too: in training the troops and combating Chi Fu, Shang must come into his own and earn respect for himself rather than exist in the shadow of his father. Another great song comes out of it, too; when training the troops, Shang tells them, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and asks “Did They Send Me Daughters When I Asked for Sons?” Of course he has no idea that there is a woman in the camp; not yet, anyway. Mulan/Ping is the first to complete Shang’s challenge of climbing a pole with two weights strapped to her arms. Unable to simply pull herself up, she uses the weights as leverage to reach the top. A lot of the film is Mulan not being able or willing to do exactly the same thing as the men due to either physical strength or stubbornness, but accomplishing the needed tasks with cunning.
Chi Fu, the Emperor’s adviser overseeing the troops, still isn’t impressed with their progress and says they’ll never see battle. Mushu can’t let this happen, as he’s depending on Mulan to succeed and bring the family honor. He forges a note to Chi Fu and impersonates a soldier to deliver it. The note is supposedly from the general, ordering the men to the front immediately. This leads to “A Girl Worth Fighting For;” not necessarily one of the best Disney songs, but it’s catchy and hilarious. The soldiers want a girl who’s thin, beautiful, good at cooking, and in awe of them. Mulan offers the possibility of a girl who has a brain and speaks her mind, and they say, “Nah!”
Then comes one of the sharpest tonal shifts in Disney history, wherein the troops stumble upon the front and find only destruction: an entire village destroyed by the Huns, all to prove a point. Mulan finds a little girl’s doll and Shang finds his father’s empty helmet. Now he doesn’t have his father’s support in the military, but more than that, he’s all alone in the world. He doesn’t cry or wail but the way the animators show his face is heartbreaking. The realization of what has happened shakes him to the core.
The troops leave the site and Mushu accidentally lights one of the rockets Mulan’s horse is pulling, causing an explosion. This alerts the Huns to the presence and location of the Chinese soldiers. A battle ensues and Mulan is stabbed by Shan-Yu, but she ultimately fires a rocket into the mountainside, burying the Huns in snow. The troops rush Mulan to a medic who rather quickly realizes she’s a girl, and tells Shang. When people make gay jokes about Shang they’re misinterpreting his relationship to Ping, but they’re also missing the greater point within the narrative. Once Mulan is revealed as a woman he’s not only furious because she’s broken the law, but personally betrayed because he had given his full trust to someone who was lying. Mulan saved his life in the avalanche, so he spares hers to repay his debt. The soldiers move on to the Emperor’s Palace to celebrate their victory.
This is another big moment for Mulan; she tells Mushu that she did all this to save her father, but she also did it so that when she sees her reflection, she’ll see someone worthwhile. He admits that he did it just to get himself in good standing with her ancestors, and the cricket admits he’s not lucky. The cricket really kind of ruins an important scene here. Regardless, they have to move on because Mulan spots some of the Huns arising from the snow and heading for the Emperor.
Once Mulan arrives, of course, none of the men believe her story that the Huns are there. That is, of course, until they all come out of a huge dragon costume and seize the Emperor, trapping him in his own palace. The men are trying to break down the door to the palace to rescue him, but Mulan has another idea. Ling, Chien Po and Yao all dress as concubines, and together they scale the wall into the Emperor’s palace. The three men distract Shan-Yu’s guards while Mulan and Shang confront him personally, freeing the Emperor and ultimately killing Shan-Yu.
After the ordeal, the men try to shield Mulan from Chi Fu, but it’s ultimately the Emperor who wants to speak with her. He accuses her of impersonating a soldier, stealing her father’s armor, destroying the palace… and saving all of China. This is a really great scene; the Emperor even offers her a position on his council, which she respectfully turns down so she can finally return home. The Emperor gifts Mulan his Medallion and Shan-Yu’s sword, which she offers to her father to honor the family. He pushes these offerings aside to embrace her, telling her she is his greatest honor. Shang shows up for dinner and it’s implied they’ll be a couple, unlike in other Disney movies where they’d be getting married by this time. Frozen would later be praised for showing a couple who are just dating, but what about this one? These two aren’t even dating yet.
Mulan isn’t the greatest Disney movie, but it is a great one. It has a very underrated musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, two terrific songs and two funny ones, a wonderful protagonist and a decent group of supporting characters. The main villain and some of the sidekicks don’t add much to the film, but while this would ruin some movies, it’s simply a mark against an otherwise excellent film.