A young woman secretly pretends to be a man and joins the Chinese army so her father won’t have to, becoming a fabled heroine warrior in the process.
Mulan is the 36th animated film from Walt Disney Pictures and is based on the Chinese legend of Fa Mulan, a woman who took up arms so her elderly father could be at peace. A mix of comedy and drama, the film follows the adventures of the girl (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) as she takes her place among the gathering armies to defend against the Huns, this in a time when it is illegal for women to fight. When her family learns of her courageous act, Mulan’s grandmother prays to the ancestors who demand the “Great Stone Dragon” to come to life and protect the girl, but what they don’t know is that the dragon never woke, and instead, a tiny dragon named Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy) takes his place and proceeds to be an endless source of mischief for Mulan, but more so, a trusted friend.
A beautifully animated and scripted story, it’s a bold step away from traditional Disney films, taking a more adventure-driven line where the female lead can do more than be a princess. Murphy provides some genuinely funny moments as do many of the supporting characters. That said, while a few songs hit their marks, there aren’t really any that meet the Disney standard, but for pure entertainment and love of animation, it’s hard to beat this exceptional production.
That Moment In: Mulan
The law of the land requires one man from each family to enlist. An honor for many, Mulan’s father is crippled and elderly and the army is surely a death sentence, but he is more than willing to go to protect his family and his homeland. Mulan, still young and naive, can’t understand this thinking, and longs only for her family to stay together. Over dinner, after her father receives his conscription notice, Mulan can no longer hold in her contempt for the law and angrily denounces the matter, but is silenced by her proud father who is ready to fight, even though his age and weakened abilities will surely mean his end.
Mulan rushes away, out of the house and into the garden where the evening rain soaks her to the bone. She sits in the shadow of a stone statue and watches through a window as her silhouetted parents console each other. Triggered by this touching moment, she hatches a plan to take her father’s place. She steals into their room as they sleep and pockets the conscription and in her room, uses a sword to shorten her hair. She then binds her body and costumes herself in her father’s old armor, mounts the family horse and rides into the night toward the army encampment.
Why it Matters
It’s about the balance, keeping Mulan in our favor while still giving her father the pride and dignity he demands and deserves. The law is obviously a blanket sweep that has no room for interpretation. The honor of serving in the army to protect their homes is one that may not be welcome but is taken seriously and with no regrets. This is an important distinction and one the filmmakers do right. By having the father (voiced by Soon-Tek Oh) stand up straight and nobly accept the call to war, we feel a larger sense of weight to the purpose and role of a position in the army. Played differently, with a cowering and saddened man, Mulan’s choice would have far less impact. It’s that she is taking the place of a man willing to go and face his demise that gives her decision so much more power.
The animation in this sequence, like much of the film, is expertly executed. When Mulan exits the house and heads to the garden, the color palette is rich and dark, with a great sense of motion as the winds kick up and the rain pours down. As Mulan sits perched in the lap of the dragon statue, watching her parents from afar, we first see a brief but effective shot of her looking to the ground into a gathering puddle that offers her reflection back, where she has a moment to reflect on what she sees. Is she her father’s daughter? Does she have the same honor and nobility? Could she give her life for her family and country?
When she lifts her head, she is moved by the obvious love between her parents and the silent acceptance of his coming fate, made clear only with the silhouetted shapes of the two behind the paper windows of their home.
It is in this moment where Mulan finds her sense of worth, where she can fulfill her place in the family. As she witnesses the strength and conviction of her mother and father, it kindles in her a spark of duty, not just to the well-being of her family, but her home and country.
The transformation that follows is equally important as we watch the diminutive young woman become the soldier, at least in costume. She begins with a prayer to the ancestors (where we see a brass lantern in the shape of a tiny dragon that offers a hint that Mushu is already watching). Here, she shows the respect and understanding of the action she is about to undertake, one that is illegal in the eyes of her government, but one firmly on the side of morality.
She then goes to her parent’s room and takes the notice, but replaces it with her hair pin, a valued treasure that symbolized her youth. What we know about Mulan is that she is a tomboy, a girl who is having trouble finding her poise and grace, necessities of being a proper bride. Earlier, after she has been called a disgrace, she is comforted by her father, who tells her that like a late cherry blossom, she too will bloom and be as beautiful. The hairpin–in the shape of cherry blossom–is a message to her father that she has finally blossomed, but not as anyone expected.
Next, by cutting her hair, she ceremonially let’s go of her visible femininity, a bold step done with the sword, a weapon she will soon become adept at in the art of war. The broadside is a powerful choice for trimming her locks, and metaphorically suggests how the tools of this trade makes men of their users, the irony being she is a woman and will become one the war’s greatest fighters.
As Mulan rides off in the horizon, the storm rises. Mulan will face her greatest challenges in the days ahead and learn much about who she is and what it means to be a woman and a fighter in this story. An empowering film for its female audience, Mulan has much to offer for anyone watching. Mulan’s choice and her transformation is the highlight of the film, and marks the beginning of a truly great Disney experience.
Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
Robert D. San Souci (based on a story by), Rita Hsiao (screenplay)
Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Soon-Tek Oh, Freda Foh Shen, Pat Morita