As I grew up, I’ve been addicted to Disney movies, as I’m sure many other people like me have been throughout their childhoods. Besides people embracing those that made them who they are, like I do with Aladdin and The Lion King, there were so many others that expressed their artistry, characters, and stories in ways that left a big impression on them as they ventured into adulthood.
One of the movies I watched as a kid that struck a chord with me the most succinctly was Mulan.
Based on the legendary Chinese ballad, it’s about a young girl named Fa Mulan, who had trouble adjusting to the social norms of women in Imperial China. But things took a turn for the worse when the Huns invaded China, resulting in one man from each family being requested to serve in the Imperial Army. And because Fa Zhou, Mulan’s frail father, was the sole male member of the family, he decided to volunteer, much to Mulan’s worries and protests. So, later that same night, Mulan decided to step in, pass herself off as a boy, and take his place in the army. Along the way, she was accompanied by a talking dragon named Mushu, met up with a group of diverse war companions, including her captain, Shang, and got set to demonstrate her war skills against the Huns.
Having watched this movie again after so many years, there were plenty of things to choose from that stood out to me.
The first, obviously enough, was the animation. Call me old-school, but I was really awestruck by the fluidity of the movie's 2D hand-drawn style. The movements and expressions allowed you to feel the emotional depths of each character, whether they’re expressed in a comedic fashion or in a dramatic, melancholy fashion. Another artistic aspect of the movie that I feel was done very well was the backgrounds. They were very colorful and atmospheric, except in a more distinct style from, say, The Lion King. The hills, forests, and towns were all portrayed in a more painterly style, and as a result, they captured the spirit and essence of Imperial China.
The music as a whole was pretty robust. The movie benefited from a brilliant musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, who managed to hit the right notes necessary to sensorially leave the viewers feeling a presence with the characters and within China. And the songs, while not the absolute greatest from Disney, were not half bad, either. I think the two best songs from the movie were the empathetic and contemplative “Reflection” and the catchy and energetic “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”. And admit it, Christina Aguilera's take on “Reflection” was pretty cool, too.
“Honor To Us All” was elegant and emphasized the rituals of Chinese tradition, “True to Your Heart” was a neat pop song, even if it was not as memorable as the others, and “A Girl Worth Fighting For” was charming and nicely expressed the warriors’ boyish longings for female companionship. The last song was especially unique for being cut off at the last verse for reasons I'll elaborate on later in this review.
Many of the characters in the movie, despite not all of them thriving from complete characterizations, were colorful and really memorable, with their charm and memorability being provided by truly compelling performances.
Mushu was a zany dragon with an energy that came from Eddie Murphy’s terrific performance. He was also one of the more egocentric of the Disney sidekicks: he just wanted to appease the Fa ancestors and prove himself as a worthy guardian. And he started by propelling Mulan further into the battlefield, instead of bringing her back, for her selfless goals and his selfish needs. What made him charming, however, besides the performance, was that there were times when he acknowledged when his greed went too far and would’ve gone out of his way to help Mulan just for her sake.
Speaking of the ancestors, they had very little screen-time, and yet they left a nice impression. They were comprised of the main ancestor, First Ancestor Fa, and all the members from each side of the Fa family. Not only were they all unique in their designs, but watching them bicker about who carried what from who was pretty fun to watch, as was their arguments with Mushu about his potential, if any, as a family guardian.
Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po were delightful, goofy war comrades who benefited greatly from their chemistry and distinct personalities. Ling was eager, excitable, and confident, Chien-Po was sweet and often had a huge appetite, and Yao was a hothead, the qualities of which were made more unique by Harvey Fierstein’s unique and always great acting.
The captain, Li Shang, was sensible and confident. While technically not that interesting, he proved his capability as a captain rather quickly, and his journey was made more interesting thanks to a certain travesty that, once again, I’ll elaborate on later in this review. As cool a character as he was, I thought he was a little too confident for someone who just got promoted, and the only time his leadership was questioned was during his quarrels with the Emperor’s counsel, Chi Fu.
Speaking of which, I found Chi Fu to also be a unique character, but for different reasons. Besides him carrying some charm thanks to the instantly recognizable voice of James Hong, he was shown as constantly unpleasant and obnoxious despite being involved with the good guys. One reason may have been that he was too firm a believer in China’s social norms, so he came across as pretty sexist at times.
There’s only one element in the movie that missed its mark for me, and regretfully, that would be the Huns, especially Shan-Yu. Now, they were intimidating and have, on more than one occasion, demonstrated their ruthlessness, but outside of that, there was nothing about them that made them interesting. Even Shan-Yu’s sinister pet falcon, while cool at first sight, came off as just an intimidating pet. In the movie, Shan-Yu claimed that he was hunting down the Emperor in response to the erection of the Great Wall. OK, but did he and the Emperor have a history together? I think, if Shan-Yu was written with this detail and a little more charm in mind, and the falcon written with more investigatory skills – look at the crow in Sleeping Beauty, for example – which I think would've been more beneficial for the Huns’ own war tactics, then maybe they would've been more interesting. But as they were, they felt more like unnerving and almost dull obstacles for the heroes to overcome.
With that out of the way, there were two things about the movie that really, really hit their mark for me.
One, you have Mulan. Now, I can’t say she’s the best of the Disney Princesses. Other such characters like Belle, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Moana, Anna, or Elsa are clearly more deserving of such recognition.
However… Is it weird for a guy like me to say he has a favorite Disney Princess? Because in all frankness, Mulan might be mine.
Why is that? Well, to start things off, unlike the other Disney Princesses, she wasn't even a princess at all, nor did she have any connections to royalty. On top of that, she did not achieve or become any of that, mostly at her request. From beginning to end, she was just your average girl in China who showed persevering strength when the situation called for it.
Also, she was having a personal battle against the social norms of China, where women like her were expected to be handmaidens or housewives. With her sneaking into the war as a boy, self-nicknamed Ping, she proved that she had as much capabilities of battle tactics and other such activities as men do, all without needing to change a thing about herself, except her disguise. Most of all, she did it all as a means to help her ailing father. It just goes to show you that one doesn’t need to be or talk tough to be considered equal to men. It all boils down to her wits, her skills, her convictions, her thoughtfulness, and how she intends to work off of them, similar to how the greatest of soldiers work off of theirs.
Lastly, she managed to prove her worth without the need of a romantic love interest by her side, and this was long before Moana came into the picture. Never mind that there have been romantic hints between Mulan and Shane throughout the movie – and when they did occur, they were very brief and I found them admirable because of it – the fact that this was not the #1 thing on Mulan’s mind as she went into the battlefield was a refreshing change of pace for Disney at the time of the movie's release.
And the second reason I hold this movie in as such high regard as I do, especially after having not seen this movie since my childhood, is because of how, underneath its kid-friendly imagery, it still managed to address the stakes and travesties of war in ways that were simple enough for the kids to pick up on and obvious enough for the adults to understand.
For a minute, I was shown war strategies that were conducted by General Li, Shang's father, as he prepared to march out with his troop to fend off Shan-Yu before he reached the village at the Tung Shao Pass. This gave a good idea, especially for kids, of how war combatants prepared their attacks before they moved onward with their mission. War wasn't just all battling, it took some careful planning to reach a certain point in their progress in the battlefield.
More importantly, the biggest example that springs into mind when I think of its portrayal of war was when Shang, Mulan, and their troops ran into the fiery remains of said village. And that was just as they were singing "A Girl Worth Fighting For" seconds earlier. From there, they just wandered through the wreckage in shock and disheartenment, found a doll, and, even for a few seconds onscreen, noticed the lifeless bodies of the Imperial troops, especially the fact that General Li was among the slain. The atmosphere, music, imagery, and expressions all helped the movie clarify to children and adults alike – and with so little – that war is hell. Not to mention that it's not just soldiers who get killed in war, but also innocent bystanders who get caught in the crossfire.
The doll was especially poignant because while it's obvious from the village wreckage that its residents were slaughtered by the Huns, if we are to take the symbolism of the doll and acknowledge it alongside what Shan-Yu hinted at earlier in the film...
Besides, the little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.
...yes, that includes children. And, as I noticed several other fans of Mulan point out, this puts a whole new spin on the phrase "a girl worth fighting for".
For those reasons, this has become not only my favorite scene from the movie, this might potentially be one of my favorite moments from animation, period, right up there with the Cave of Wonders sequences from Aladdin.
What more can I say about Mulan? This movie was exactly what I thought the title character was: elegant and headstrong. The music was terrific, the cast of characters was colorful, the animation was beautiful, and its careful handling of war was superb. And what compliments them and holds them all together was the steadfastness of a fantastic leading character who should stand out as a great role model not just for girls everywhere, but for anyone.
No doubt about it, this movie, among others, brought honor to me and my childhood.
My Rating: A-
The more I thought about it, 1998, the year Mulan first came out, must've been quite a ripe year for war movies, wasn't it? In addition to children getting a blast out of watching Mulan, adults got just as big a blast out of watching Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Pretty trippy, huh?