Mulan (1998)

When I worked at the now-defunct Magic of Disney Animation attraction at Walt Disney World, one of our responsibilities was to get up on a stage, pretending to be an animator, and detail how animated films are made in about 12 minutes. The subject was kept quirky and comedic, thanks to the presence of Mushu the dragon on the nearby screen. In this show, Drawn to Animation, we’d debate and bicker with the sassy dragon, trying to explain to him what it means to become an animated Disney character. For this reason, I was happy to brag to people I’d meet that Mushu was my coworker.

Why was Mushu selected, out of Smoo-knows-how-many Disney characters to co-host a show about Disney animation? Simple: in the attraction’s previous iteration, back when it was a real animation studio, Mulan was its very first movie it made independently out of that location. Sure, it only made two others, at least four shorts, and shut down six years later, but it’s something.

Based on the Ballad of Mulan, a folk song from the Northern wei Dynasty (Around 386 and 536 A.D.), celebrates the courage of one young Hua Mulan, who took her ailing father’s place in the army, fought for 12 years, eventually retired without accepting a government council position, and only then does reveal to her comrades that she was, in fact, a woman. Though for about 1,500 years, her story was relatively unknown in the west (However, Wikipedia claims there had been no fewer than six film adaptations in the twentieth century.), but a plucky Florida attraction owned by the the largest brand name in family media would soon change all that.

Make merry in this marvelous milestone with Ming’s Mulan, Mushu, and the military might of this memorable movie!

The plot: When the Huns, led by the cruel Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) cross the Great Wall and subsequently invade China, the emperor (Pat Morita), calls upon one member of every family to serve in the imperial army.

Somewhere in the Chinese countryside, a teenage girl named Fa Mulan (Ming-na Wen) has been dishonored by the matchmaker, a sure sign that she will never bring honor her family by being a demure bride meant to bear sons. When her father gets drafted into the army, she is horrified knowing his old age and feeble strength are sure signs of death on the battlefield. Knowing full well the lethal repercussions of a woman being in the army if she’s discovered, she cuts her hair and dons her father’s old armor, and steals away in the night to take his place.

Upon joining the military camp, she is joined by Mushu (Eddie Murphy), a tiny dragon sent by Mulan’s ancestors to bring her home. But determined to make Mulan a war hero, and Mulan’s drive to keep her father safe, the two stay. However, the army, led by captain Li Shang (B. D. Wong), is in serious need of training, and worse, the Hun army is closing in on the Emperor’s palace.

How’s the writing?: This movie’s structure is more sound than an earthquake-proof home. Standard by nineties’ standards, sure, but it’s solid and does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

The characters are defined by their personalities and the choices they make. Mulan, in particular, is a great character in seeing how she reacts to her highly uncomfortable surroundings, like bathing in the lake or the guys talking about their dream wives. You feel genuine discomfort at how Mulan encounters all the casual sexism she bears witness to. You feel her anguish over the prospect of losing her father on the battlefield. None of the characters, least of all her, feel flat or uninteresting.

As far as the narrative goes, it’s the expected rags-to-riches (Or rather, novice-to-warrior) story as Mulan goes from farm girl to soldier to war hero. It’s a well-told arc that gives some great surprises, particularly at the beginning of the third act when Shan-Yu and his men crawl out of the snow.

Does it give the feels?: Indeed! Mulan hinges its premise on Mulan selflessly committing herself not to Emperor and country, but to her own father, who was pretty much guaranteed to die in battle. Mulan’s willingness to risk the death penalty and being KIA is more than just a key component in the movie, it’s integral.

When Mulan is left in the snow, feeling sorry for herself, Mushu reminds her of this, realizing he went to war to serve his own selfish desires. But what makes it work is that is her asking herself is she did it to prove she could do things right. It’s hardly an unfounded question, and any person as reflective as Mulan would question their own motives.

Who makes it worth it?: I have no rational reason to like Mushu, all things considered. By making him shrimpy and sassy, it’s kind of an affront to Chinese culture (As I understand it, that was the primary reason he was excised from the 2020 remake: it’d be like if The Patriot featured Mel Gibson’s sidekick as a bald eagle whom everyone mistook for a chicken). Having a prominent black comedian voicing him makes no sense in 4th century China. He’s clearly yet another second-rate attempt to replicate the success of Robin William’s as the Genie. Diegetically, he’s an arrogant, smart-alecky, self-interested shyster who uses Mulan as a means to further his own professional goals. He is blind to his own shortcomings except his size, in which he is adamantly defensive. And yet…there is something incredibly endearing about him.

When Disney announced that Mushu was not appearing in the remake, fans were understandably upset. And I get it. Mushu does do good things, even if his moral compass is decidedly off. He is Mulan’s strongest advocate after Khan and Cri-Kee. He manipulates events to make Mulan look good in the eyes of her superiors. And on top of all that, he’s very funny. It’s classic Eddie Murphy doing his usual shtick, and with Mushu, it works!

Mulan herself is very genuine and funny, easily one of the most well-rounded and fleshed out of the Disney female protagonists. Honorable mention goes to James Hong, who plays Chi-Fu. Hong has over 400 acting credits to his name, and is best recognized probably as David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China or for younger audiences, Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda franchise. I’d be seriously remiss to overlook him. And the great queen herself, June Foray, as Mulan’s grandmother. These two practically transcend greatness.

Best quality provided: I’m a dumb white American. I admit that. The greatest extent of my knowledge of China stems from Crazy Rich Asians or whatever documentaries I find on Netflix. And on top of that, I can’t fluently speak Mandarin or Cantonese. And this movie is as Chinese as Panda Express. But if there’s one authentically Chinese thing about this movie that happens to be one of my favorite things about is Jackie Chan singing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”.

You read that right. Martial artist extraordinaire Jackie Chan is more than just a great action star, he’s also a great singer, too! Chan played Shang in both Manadrin and Cantonese dubs of the movie, and did not just the diagetic track in the film, but also made a music video out of it, complete with his famous fight choreography. I instinctively fell in love with this version, which is the Mandarin dub that was on my old Mulan DVD. The english track, sung by Donny Osmond, is a truly great Disney song in its own right, but there’s something lovely about the language itself, Especially acknowledging its cultural roots.

The rest of the songs are great Disney staples, too. To a lesser degree, I enjoy one of Christina Aguilera’s first hit singles, her version of the film’s “I want” ballad, “Reflection”. There’s something wonderfully cheesy and fun about the closing track “True to Your Heart” sung by the legendary Stevie Wonder and the much-less-legendary band 98°.

What could have been improved: Like I said, this movie is as authentically Chinese as a Panda Express on your local street corner. The 1973 version of Robin Hood with the cartoon animals is just as authentic to medieval England. I often feel like a movie that has a potential to be someone’s primary look at another culture (Especially for American audiences) should take the responsibility a little more seriously. On the other hand, it is an animated fantasy, so I’m sure some leeway is to be expected and tolerated. I’ve watched this more than a few times as a kid, so most of what I learned about Chinese culture is from this movie.

Much like Pocahontas, I’ve taken a lot of some of the implications as gospel, which isn’t good. Fortunately, in the age of YouTube, I can watch videos like these and learn otherwise. For example, did you know the Huns are meant to be Mongolians, but the idea of the huns invading is largely inaccurate, and more significantly, pretty racist? That Chinese dragons do not breathe fire? That putting chopsticks vertically in your rice is insulting? That dumplings make terrible army rations? That Chinese families like Mulan’s wouldn’t have their own pagoda for their ancestors, much less set up the way it was in the movie? Or that Mulan cutting her hair would have made her more conspicuous because even men were culturally forbidden to cut their hair? Or that Cri-Kee’s message he “types” up is just fast food gibberish? Creative leeway allows me to forgive things like the use of rocket cannons (when fireworks were likely invented after the period Mulan takes place in). It is a fantasy, and it is a period piece. But as a global titan Disney is, it’s their responsibility to not spread misinformation.

Verdict: I really like this movie. There’s little about it I don’t like. I’d be remiss if I said I watched this one a lot, but I wouldn’t mind if someone put it on, particularly when Mushu’s on screen. It’s something I’d be happy to share with my kids one day as both a feminist piece and a culturalist one, particularly if that means providing supplemental material to give them the full story. In all, I’d give this one seven Big Bamboo rockets out of ten.

Now…let’s get down to business.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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