Now it’s time to meet the warrior princess, our title character: Mulan from Mulan (1998)
In ancient China, an only daughter named Fa Mulan tries her best to bring honour to her family by being set up for an arranged marriage, but she messes it up with the match maker and is left wondering what to do next. Soon China gets invaded by the Huns, and one man from every family is given a conscription notice. Mulan’s father is in no shape to fight, but he’s forced to fight for the Emperor as he’s the only male member of the family. So Mulan takes matters into her own hands by posing as a man and taking her father’s place in the middle of the night. With the help of her trusty horse, her guardian dragon side-kick Mushu, and her lucky cricket, she has to find a way to fit in with the army and battle the Huns.
Mulan is based on the old Chinese tale of Hua Mulan, which has been passed on over 2,000 years. Some rumours argue that Mulan was an actual person. Mulan was originally going to be a short, straight-to-DVD film titled “China Doll”, about a Chinese girl who falls in love with a British guy. Then Disney consultant Robert D. San Souci suggested making a movie of the ancient poem “The Song of Fa Mulan”, and the studio decided to combine the two projects. “The Song of Fa Mulan” or “The Ballad of Fa Mulan” was about how a girl saves her father’s life, and the makers of the film took that important element and applied it to the film. So far Mulan is the only Disney Princess who’s not actually a princess. The other Princesses were either born royalty, or are married to royalty. I guess Mulan’s considered part of the line-up to include some diversity in the merchandising. I could be wrong, although it is a great possibility. She does hold the virtues normally seen in a Disney Princess anyway: kind, beautiful, determined, all that stuff. Mulan’s voiced by Ming-Na, and once again Lea Salonga returns to lend her singing voice to a Disney Princess, previously doing Jasmine’s singing voice. Here’s an interesting trivia: Did you know that the song “Reflection” was actually supposed to be a bit longer? There’s an extended version that you can find on YouTube. The song was deleted to Salonga’s dismay, so whenever she gets the chance to sing the song live, she sings the extended version instead of the original theatrical release version. Pretty cool! And I love it! Anyway, Mulan’s also well recognised in the line-up for being the only one to cross dress in her feature film.
Mulan was well received in its original release, and is a film that a lot of people get attached to even to this day. It doesn’t follow the Disney formula as much as others (e.g. most importantly, Mulan is not a love story, although there’s a little bit of chemistry between Mulan and Shang. I’m glad they didn’t try to shoehorn it in simply for being a Disney flick). Unlike Pocahontas who was trying to follow up to the familiar Disney elements too much, Mulan does something different and tries to balance the Disney elements with something new and original. Mulan herself has a lot of followers and a lot of girls admire her. And when I was a kid, Mulan was my favourite Disney Princess and I watched the Mulan A LOT. Today, I still am attached to Mulan.
Mulan is very kind and deeply cares for her family, and we feel that when we see her interact with them, especially her father. But what sets her apart from most Chinese women is that she is a bit of a klutz and not very elegant. Also, Chinese women at the time had to be reserved, obedient and silent, and Mulan is far from that: she’s more outspoken, tends to be late, and breaks the rules a lot. This becomes a problem for her as she fails at being a proper bride at the beginning of the film. Trying to meet up with other people’s expectations is not an easy job, especially when everyone’s behaviour is heavily influenced by social and cultural norms. Usually in a story like this you have a female protagonist who has something against society demanding her to fulfil the role considered to be strictly feminine, and they’d instead prefer to do something that is seen as typically masculine. But Mulan doesn’t have any problem with the role original designated for her. She doesn’t even have a problem with an arranged marriage. She was honestly trying to be a proper Chinese woman and trying her best. She’s just not cut out for this. This revelation makes her wonder about her own identity and how she can make herself and her family happy. “Reflection” is a song a lot of people could relate to, especially around Mulan’s age, because at that time in their lives they’re trying to figure out who they are, but they don’t want to disappoint the people they love. Sometimes they become worried about whether they can ever make something out of themselves, whether they’ll become something they’re not just to please their family, or whether their family will accept them for who they truly are. She’s a very relatable character in that sense, and I guess (like Ariel) teenagers can relate to her a lot. I like the fact that she wrote notes on her arm to cheat on the exam, and the scene where she’s waking up early in the morning and has this “I don’t want to go to school today” attitude. That’s pretty cute. That’s what normally most teenagers (and most people for that matter) would do at that age. I love small details like that, which make for lots of funny moments.
That’s another thing that makes her stand out from other Disney Princesses. Characters like Belle and Jasmine already have a sense of who they are and won’t allow society or others to pressure them to become something they’re not. But Mulan doesn’t know who she is at the beginning of the film, which makes the storyline of the film all the more different from the usual formula: as well as standing up to one’s identity, Mulan DISCOVERS her identity. Mulan is trying to meet up with society’s expectations at first, but then she realises she can’t. She may not know who she really is, but all she knows by this point is that she IS NOT a typical Chinese lady.
But does that mean that she’s meant to be a warrior? ABSOLUTELY NOT. This is NOT about her being a warrior princess, nor is it about her wanting to be a warrior as opposed to a Chinese bride. Also in stories like this we have a female protagonist who’s already suited to what is considered a typically masculine role, and shows the men around her that she can do stuff better than them. But Mulan isn’t like that. She does have to learn and develop her skills, as well as socialise with other guys. In the awesome song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, it takes her a long time for her to keep up until the end where she has mastered the skills she needs. That’s another thing I like about her which makes her stand out: usually Disney Princesses already have skills marked in their interests and personalities, like Tiana being able to cook. But Mulan isn’t automatically good at any of this. She needs to learn and work for her skills, which makes the end result all the more satisfying. Something she retains throughout the whole film is her cunning and quick thinking, such as solving a game of chess briefly in one scene. In the film, she has to use both her brains and her strength in order to solve her problems, and realises this after finding a way to climb up the pole and get the arrow down using the heavy weighs tied to her arms.
It’s fun to see Mulan struggle and try to work her way through the military, as well as disguise herself as a man and trying to fit in with the rest. This also leads to very funny moments. In fact, I find her the funniest Princess of the bunch: great line deliveries, great facial expressions, and funny moments with the rest of the cast.
So this is a film which tackles the issue of gender roles, and does it in a very unique way. It’s not about whether being feminine or masculine is correct or better, and neither is it about Mulan preferring one side over the other. It’s about Mulan trying to find out for herself where she belongs in either. It’s about her making her own decisions for herself. It’s about Mulan finding her own identity, finding her place in life and earning that place for herself. I don’t have anything wrong with gender roles. I just have a problem if there’s an expectation or demand that each gender fall into those roles. With the help of the people in the military and her sidekick friends, she develops the confidence and discipline in herself that she needs, and in the process ends up building an identity of her own.
Mulan is not trying to prove any point. She isn’t trying to break the norms to try and make a statement that society is wrong about gender roles. She just wants to save her father from a horrible fate, and in the process finds something worthwhile in herself. She’s a simple woman who turns out to be much greater than she expected. In that sense, Mulan is one of the more humble Disney Princesses, just as the film itself is one of the most humble of the Disney outings. It’s not trying to be a fantastic film or an epic. It’s trying to tell a simple story about a girl who saves her father’s life and in the process finds herself. I guess that’s why a lot of people find something appealing about this film: its humility and simplicity. The fact alone that she was doing this to save her father’s life tells us that she is a noble character, and she doesn’t realise it until the very end. She found something in her that was fantastic, but she had to break some boundaries in order to do so. She wasn’t going to let society tell her that she was weak or incapable of doing something just because she was a woman. She won’t accept the fact that she can’t do anything: she will save her father no matter what.
Mulan is a film easy to appreciate: it offers a simple yet satisfying story and visual style with a very interesting and memorable female lead. Mulan is probably the most unique out of the Disney Princesses, but she’s still as likeable. Whether people love this film or not, I always thought that this is a good movie that holds up to this day. I freaking love Mulan!
Continuing the line-up, in the film which marked Disney’s return of traditional animation, we’ll look at the hardworking waitress: Tiana.