Here’s one that acknowledged the mould, took firm grasp of the mould, then, with decided precision, ATE THE MOULD. Rather than spending her 80 minutes chasing after some prince, Mulan chops off her hair, steels a horse, and joins the army to defend her country. How was your nap, Snow White? Most of Mulan’s secondary characters live, breathe, and worship the idea that women should be silent and obedient. As one of them says, “She’s a woman. She’ll never be worth anything.” Sleeping Beauty never had to hear that – and her great act of heroism was to pass out without breaking anything. Mulan, however, couldn’t give a damn what everybody thinks. In her mind, it’s honour first, family second, and social expectations somewhere after feeding the chickens.
In order to bring honour to her family, Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) must learn to pour tea without spilling it and find a good man with at least 3 goats. However, when the imperial army comes to her village seeking soldiers (male only) to defend against the Hun army, Mulan just can’t sit by and let her crippled father fight on behalf of the family. In the most badass movie sequence since Sigourney Weaver stepped into the exoskeleton, Mulan waits until the dead of night, steals her father’s armour, makes herself look as manly as possible, and runs off to join the army on her father’s behalf. This being imperial China, the punishment for a woman “impersonating” a soldier is death. Mulan’s family therefore has little choice but to hope she survives the war and doesn’t get caught. While her number one priority is to defeat the Huns and protect her country, Mulan’s second concern is to bathe alone, puff her chest out a bit, and spit appropriately to fit in with the other men in her unit.
Mulan’s strong story is surrounded by artistic, memorable elements. From behind the silly moments like Mulan’s dragon, Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy), frying up a hearty breakfast, or her army buddies freaking out over a snake in the river, there is some beautiful imagery that just sticks with you. Powerful scenes like Mulan stooped under the stone dragon, or the little doll alone in the snow, embrace this movie with heart. It’s as strong as it is striking and as meaningful as it is wonderful.
While Mulan, like many Disney films, gave my younger self unrealistic hair expectations (cutting your hair with a sword won’t yield as even a trim you’d think), its many other virtues are bang on. The biggest one, I’m realising now, is the family dynamic. Think hard and tell me the last time you saw a movie/read a book where the protagonist had both parents together, present, and not dysfunctionally insane. Think about it.
It’s a tough list to draw, but Mulan is at the very top of Disney’s 90’s animated movie barrage. Let’s explore the following reasons:
- It has a creative mix of Chinese art and comfortable Disney-style animation;
- It’s a story about strength in all its different forms;
- The female protagonist is more than just a shampoo commercial and a sing-along;
- Mulan throws in metaphors like an Indian chef throws in spices; and
- There are a whopping total of four songs. How many did The (less than successful) Princess and the Frog have? Eight. We sat through eight of those. That is what happens when you swap plot for jazz hands.
Mulan is the kind of movie you leave on even when you’re not in a movie mood. It has the classic Disney sidekicks, the lab-experiment-level intelligent animals, and that mind-over-muscle message we’re noticing in more animated movies. But Mulan also has a heavy emphasis on figuring out what “honour” means to the individual, and finding a way to share that self-pride with a narrow-minded family. Mulan lights the way with 10 self-esteem points out of 10.