Princess Review: Mulan
Jul 15 // Jenika Katz
Princess Reviews return with the most pink I have put in a header in my life. Unlike some previous Disney princess films loosely following actual historical events, Mulan is based on an old Chinese ballad about a female warrior of the same name. While that Mulan was a trained warrior from the beginning who survived twelve years of constant war, this Mulan is an uncertain girl who joins the army in a desperate attempt to save her family and get to know herself.
Given that this is the story of a female warrior, one would assume that I am quite fond of the messages this movie sends. I'm a pretty harsh critic, though. Is Mulan a good influence, or just pretending to be?
Mulan lives in a society where women are only expected to get married and raise children. She thinks for herself, speaks her mind, and doesn't always listen to authority. This, of course, makes her an absolutely awful potential bride. Who would marry a woman who thinks? When she attempts to impress a matchmaker, Mulan ends up making a complete fool of herself, and she comes to the realization that she's not much of one for a traditional lifestyle.
She doesn't have much time for self-loathing, though. Upon her return to her family's farm, the Emperor's messenger arrives with news that the Huns have invaded China, and one man from every family must serve in the war. Mulan's father is crippled from the last war, and Mulan begs him not to accept the summons. This is pretty embarrassing in front of a crowd, especially for a former war hero, and her father says as much. Mulan is upset at having shamed her family twice in one day, and when she sees her father collapse in pain while practicing with his sword, she makes a decision: she's going in for him.
Once they find out what she's doing, Mulan's parents would like to stop her, but joining the Chinese army under false pretenses, specifically as a woman, is punishable by death. Given that Mulan has lived most of her life as a tomboy, one might think that she would have an easier time adjusting to life as a male, but she is not a terribly convincing man. After a few well-intentioned missteps and consistently failing at all of the training exercises, she becomes the mockery of the entire camp. Captain Shang, the commander of the troops, asks her to leave. This is enough cause for Mulan to nut up and finish training, and her improvement inspires her peers to do the same.
The troops head out soon after to meet up with the main branch, singing all the while about bonin' ladies. Their song stops short when they arrive at the designated village and find it burned to the ground, all the inhabitants lying dead amongst the Chinese soldiers that tried to protect them. Yes, this is still a Disney movie. The soldiers move on, following the Huns, and clash with their army on a snowy mountain. The Huns vastly outnumber them, but Mulan's tactical thinking comes to the rescue. She causes an avalanche, burying the Huns alive. Unfortunately, she's injured in the process, and her fellow soldiers discover a couple of things that make her ineligible for military service. Captain Shang spares her life in return for her bravery, and the troops leave her alone on the mountain.
Just as Mulan decides to return home and confront her family, she discovers that Shan Yu, leader of the Hun army, is still alive. Assuming that this means he'll be heading for the Emperor's palace, she returns to the city and tries to warn her fellow soldiers. They ignore her, and feel that they are quite safe until the Huns burst out of a parade float and kidnap the Emperor. Mulan once again comes up with a quick solution, and she faces off against Shan Yu, killing him violently with fireworks.
The Emperor offers Mulan a position in his cabinet, but Mulan refuses for the moment, preferring to go back home and show her family how awesome she is. The Emperor leaves his offer standing, and invites all of China to bow to her like the hero she is.
At the very end of the movie, the Emperor tells Shang to follow Mulan, since “You don't meet a girl like that every Dynasty.” Of course, I only realized that was what he was saying when I rewatched the movie in high school, and felt a little silly for mishearing the word for so long. Upon watching it again, though, I don't feel too bad. Seriously, listen to him and tell me he's saying that word clearly.
While the movie begins with Mulan preparing to go into an arranged marriage, it's clear that it isn't a situation she's interested in. I mean, she has to write notes on her arm about being the perfect wife. Considering that her peers pretty much existed to get married and pop kids out, she must really have her mind elsewhere not to know the basics. The only reason she goes along with it is to honor her family, but she knows it's not her style.
Conversely, when she poses as Ping in the army, Mulan is also not completely comfortable with her situation. She acts more like herself once she's proven that she's a badass, but she still has to completely hide her identity. You can tell how much more confident she becomes in the final scenes, hiding neither her gender nor her analytical mind. Her confidence inspires the respect of her peers, and that's a wonderful message for a little girl to get.
Of course, the fact that Mulan has to show her strength by trying to become a man is a little out of place with the positive messages in the movie. Seriously, one song instructs the viewer to be a man, and the other talks about ideal women while rejecting Mulan's suggestion for a woman who thinks for herself. If Mulan were allowed to go back into combat after her exploits, I think it would make up for the message. As it is, since the worst offender is also the best song in the movie and I never noticed the implications as a kid, I think it gets a pass.
Mulan and Shang start off unsteadily, but after Mulan proves that she is worthy of respect, she and Shang become friends. Sure, she has a bit of a crush on him, making their friendship not purely platonic, but let's be real: who wouldn't have a crush on Shang? Plus, if we're being realistic, Mulan is a teenager, so the fact that she doesn't let her slight romantic affection interfere with her respect for Shang is a pretty good mark of self-control. Even better, there is absolutely no romance between them until after their friendship is solidified, and then Mulan simply invites him to dinner. Mark that: she invites him out, and not the other way around. A relationship initiated by a woman and based on friendship? Good job, Disney. More of this, please.
Both characters are interesting and likeable, and it seems realistic that they would actually get along together. Unlike most romances that begin with one or both characters disliking one another, Shang's reluctance to accept Mulan is not because of her personality, but because of her perceived weakness and how much harder she makes his job at first. Once she proves herself, however, their mutual respect for one another leads to a strong friendship, and while Mulan's initial deception is quite the blow to Shang (especially considering that, given the time period, the sheer fact that a woman could be so strong would be a hard thing for an army captain to wrap his mind around), he comes around eventually and understands that she really did have good intentions.
By the way, did you know who voices Shang in the Chinese version of the movie? No disrespect to Mr. Chan, of course, but I don't think I'd be able to maintain a lady-boner for Shang with this voice coming out of him.
Mulan boasts a strong, kickass female character, and its flaws are minor enough that young girls probably won't even notice them. This is probably the strongest role model to date, and well worth a young girl's time.
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