Mulan (1998)

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I have to admit, I forgot just how good this movie is. Also, how frustrating it can be. I know I’ve watched it more recently than some other Disney films, and yet viewing it with a critical eye has helped shed new light on the story, highlighting the brilliance of the story while also pointing out the many flaws in the society in which Mulan lives.

Mulan is the only daughter of a well-respected retired soldier. Unfortunately, she’s a little too independent and strong-willed to live up to the demands of her family.  Their goals for her are to see her married off so that she can bring honor to her family.  Sadly, she fails spectacularly at doing so, instead bringing shame and dishonor to those she cares about.

Ever the dutiful daughter, Mulan wishes she could find a way to bring honor to her family name while also being true to herself.

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While Mulan struggles with her duties as a daughter, the Huns begin to invade China. The emperor issues an edict calling for a man from each family to report to basic training in one day’s time. Mulan’s father is injured, but vows to serve his country.  Wanting to protect her father, knowing that to go to war would mean certain death for him, she instead steals his armor and reports to the training camp herself, posing as a man.

What follows is the typical “character struggles at first before finally learning her own strengths and succeeding” song, a.k.a. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, a.k.a. That song will now be stuck in your head for the next 3 days, you’re welcome.

Mulan struggles to fit in with her fellow soldiers, but ultimately they come to accept “Ping” as one of them.  Along for the ride are Cri-Kee, a supposedly lucky cricket who basically just hops around all day and doesn’t do all that much, and Mushu, the wise-cracking dragon who has to help Mulan on her mission so that her ancestors don’t go all crazy on him.

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A word on Mushu: as Mistah J put it, a little goes a long way.  The film was clearly hoping to cash in on the fame of Eddie Murphey by having him voice the character, and so gave him waaaay more lines than most supporting characters would ever have. Perhaps they thought they’d have a similar Robin Williams/Genie thing going on, but unfortunately they re just not quite on the same level.  Mushu has plenty of funny lines, but there’s just a little too much focus on him.  His first scene is entirely too long, including a sub-plot about Mushu needing to prove to the ancestors that he can be a family guardian again.  The jokes are good, but the film as a whole is just a little too humorous at times to fit in with the otherwise serious nature of many scenes.

I was incredibly amused towards the end of the film watching Mistah J’s reaction to what all transpired (he had never seen the film before).  After saving her fellow soldiers and bringing down the entire Hun army, it’s revealed that she’s actually a woman.  Everyone freaks the hell out, and they’re even supposed to kill her. The only thing that saves her is her commanding officer, Shang, sparing her life because she literally just saved his five minutes ago.  The army leaves Mulan in the snowy mountains, as they all travel to the Emperor’s palace to take credit for everything Mulan just did.

Mistah J lost his shit at this part, and I was basically cracking up. He was ranting on and on about how horrible these people were and basically questioning why Mulan was trying to save the very regime that would treat her this way, asking why she doesn’t just go join the Hun army instead?  Upon reflection, it seems like the only reason they include a whole side scene where the Huns destroy an entire village is to drive home the point that they’re the bad guys, because if it wasn’t for that scene, they wouldn’t really seem all that bad compared to what Mulan has to put up with.

The big climax takes place at the palace, with Mulan receiving help from her fellow soldiers to stop the Huns from taking over.  Mulan single-handedly stops their leader, using a move involving a Chinese fan to disarm him that to this day I still want to learn how to do.

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Seriously, can I be her??

After saving the entire country, the Emperor thanks her, which apparently means that everything she’s done is officially forgiven, and everyone’s allowed to like her again. As she returns home to present her father with the gifts she’s been given to honor the family, all of a sudden she’s more important than honor (seriously dude, you could have told her this before she ran away to join the army).  Shang shows up, implying a love connection between the two (and illiciting another rant from Mistah J along the lines of, “No, screw that guy, he’s a dick, he only likes her because the emperor told him it was okay”).  All things considered, it’s a happy ending.

This movie elicits a lot of emotions from me.  On the one hand, I love Mulan. I love that she’s willing to risk her life for her family, and that the entire story isn’t about finding a husband or chasing after a boy.  She shows extreme courage and encourages young girls to break gender stereotypes to do anything they want. On the other hand, the world in which Mulan lives is pretty horrible; she could be killed simply for impersonating a man, even though she saved the entire freaking country.  I get that we’re supposed to understand that it’s wrong, but it’s so frustrating to watch this girl risk her life for her country, only to be shunned when her gender is revealed.  It’s all wrapped up nicely in the end, but the damage has already been done.  Mulan deserved far better treatment.

Still, I love watching it, and Mulan remains one of my favorite Disney “princesses” (even though she’s not really a princess, she’s far better in my book).  I love that Disney is finally embracing the concept of a young girl actively chasing after her own dreams and making decisions for herself, completely separate from finding love or a husband.  Such characters were woefully lacking from earlier Disney films, and it’s nice to see that they’re finally embracing young girls standing up for themselves (even if it took them nearly 60 years from the release of Snow White).  Mulan is from the era that’s considered the decline of the Disney Renaissance, yet that seems unfair to the film.  The animation is wonderful, the songs are great, and Mulan is a much better role model for young girls than say, Sleeping Beauty.  I would gladly watch this movie again and again.

“Let’s get down to business/to defeat the Huns”. Seriously, this will be in my head ALL WEEK now, and now it’ll probably be in yours as well. You’re welcome.

-Jess

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