A Study in Disney: ‘Mulan’ (1998)

| January 22, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Mulan (1998) directed by Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

One of the defining aspects of the Disney renaissance was the creative team’s desire to use their newly reacquired popularity to move animation into unexplored territory.  In theory this was an admirable and very wise attitude.  In practice, the attempts to honor other cultures often clashed with the requirement of The Disney Brand.  Funny enough, the renaissance would have to rise to greatness (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), then trip over its own feet (Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and then rise to greatness once again.  Enter: Mulan.

Perhaps the greatest gift of Mulan is that it is so entertaining that you almost have to work to pick it apart.  Oh, it CAN be picked apart, and many have tried digging at the film for being culturally insensitive, under-thinking its story and placing yet another black actor in a servile role.  There is probably some validation to all of this but why would you want to even go there?  This is a good movie.  The story is well told, the animation is beautiful, the comedy works and the music is memorable.  There are relevant themes here about gender roles and what defines a man and a woman.  It has a title character who is fun, relatable and all-too human.  Mulan is the kind of spunky, down-to-earth character that many of us had hoped to get from Pocahontas – a real person who is determined but flawed, not a blameless gazelle with gorgeous legs.

Those who carp probably have their legitimate grievances – it’s reasonable given that Disney has a checkered past when dealing with other cultures.  Mulan is a step in a new direction, however.  Most of the folk tales and fairy tales that have been adapted into Disney animated features have been very Eurocentric – Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, The Sword in the Stone, etc.  This is the first time that a film in the animated Disney cannon has stepped outside of that and dealt with an Asian folk tale.  When the film was announced, the news was met with a lot of collar-tugging.  However, when the movie came out, there was far less gnashing then something like Pocahontas and that has to do with the portrayal of Mulan herself.  This is the first Disney movie that consciously dealt with feminist issues without bowing to the structures that were often required of the Disney formula.  She isn’t looking for a man.  She isn’t looking for a fairy tale life.  She has a problem that is only solved by her getting off her behind and taking care of it herself, and that requires her to break all measure of social convention.

Mulan is the first Disney heroine since Belle in Beauty and the Beast who acts like a real human being.  She overturns convention by being herself and not adhering to gender expectations – being that she is being trained to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, a role at which she fails.  Those around her perhaps purposefully miss her best qualities – she is smart, funny and best suited for something other than tea and manners.

She is adept and thoughtful.  When she is faced with a serious dilemma she uses her common sense to correct it in spite of her constant reminder to keep her head down and her mouth shut.  When she makes the choice to disguise herself as a man to keep her father from having to join the crusade against the advancing Huns, she finds herself much more adept at skills accepted by men then she ever did in the roles imposed on her as a woman – this is 4th century China so her expected role is limited to say the least.  The movie constructs her inability to maintain a “woman’s function” in the guise of slapstick.  She wakes up late, rushes out the door, fumbles at getting ready and turns her appointment with the matchmaker into a comedy of errors.  The woman screams at her that she will never bring honor to her family.  She’s half right; Mulan cannot ever hope to bring honor to her family given the constraints of her gender.

Saddened by her failure, she sings about her dilemma, a gender confusion that hurts her heart.  At this point in history there is a massive dividing line between what is expected of males and what is expected of females (the movie has a very low opinion of men).  So, in failing at her role as a woman, Mulan – in song – questions who she really is:

Who is that girl I see staring straight back at me.
When will my reflection show who I am inside?
I am now in a world where I have to hide my heart and what I believe in
But somehow, I will show the world
What’s inside my heart and be loved for who I am.

This turnabout speaks volumes.  Mulan is obviously trying to find her place in the world at a time when the world cages her best qualities.  What audience does it speak to and what does it say to them?  The answer: everyone who has ever asked this question.  It speaks to teenagers trying to find their identity.  It speaks to women trying to figure out what role to play in a “man’s world.”  It’s speaks to those in the LGBT community who have tried to comfortably settle on their sexual identity in a social structure that labels them the walking definition of moral outrage.  It speaks to anyone, frankly, who is on the outside looking in.

For many, this search for identity can be a life or death struggle, and this is certainly true for Mulan.  The Hun army is invading and the Emperor needs one man of each family to serve in the army.  But since Mulan’s mother and father have no sons, her father is forced to serve despite his age and a bum leg (in reality, since he is a decorated veteran, he might have been given an officer position off the field but this makes for better drama).  Mulan, of course, fearing for her father’s safety sneaks out in the middle of the night, assumes the identity of a man, and takes his place.  This, of course, is a crime in 3rd century China punishable by death.

Mulan’s adeptness at being a soldier does not come from strength or skill but from ingenuity.  When tasks with test of retrieving and arrow from the top of a pole with weights tied around her waist, she reconstruction the conditions the parameters of the test using skill.  When the Huns take over the Imperial City and threaten the Emperor himself, her skill at quick thinking saves the day.  This turns out to be her greatest asset, not feats of strength (the film makes clear that this is not her best quality).  Again, she’s smart and uses common sense.

Ultimately Mulan finds that what she wants is to bring honor to her family.  She isn’t interested in proving some point.  She isn’t interested in glory for China.  She isn’t even interested in romance.  Her tepid but not inconsequential attraction to her superior officer Captain Li Shang is tempered by the fact that her safety depends on maintaining her ruse of being a man, which brings about odd and confused looks from Shang.  Does he suspect that she is a woman or is he confused about being attracted to a man?  The relieved, yet disappointed look on his face when he finds out the truth after Mulan is injured deepens the mystery further.  What is he thinking?  Does he love her?  Does she love him?  The movie quietly dances around this attraction but remains mum about how he feels about what is happening.  Mulan’s common sense tells her that a romance isn’t possible but is she really looking for love?  Not really.  It’s not even really implied that she has romantic feelings for Shang, it is more of sexual attraction.

Any possibility of physical attraction between the two is tempered by the fact that this is a Disney film, one in which the writers are trying to stay the course and avoid a conventional love story.  Yes, she looks at him with goo-goo eyes, but it’s nothing more than an at-a-glance attraction.  The heavier Disney requirements are present in the supporting cast, in the gaggle of ancient ghosts, in Mulan’s cricket friend and, of course, in Mushu who would become a problem for analysts. 

Mushu is Mulan’s ersatz conscience and partner-in-crime but since he is played by Eddie Murphy, his street-smart witticisms seem, for some, to be out of step in third century China, but truthfully, it’s not a hindrance like, say, the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.   He’s more organic to the plot, having been summoned by Mulan’s ghost ancestors.  He was once trusted by the elders but was demoted to incense burner and gong ringer when he failed to protect Fa Deng who was decapitated (he shows up as a ghost holding his own head).  This overturns the other common complaint, that here is a character played by an African-American actor who is in a servile role, a humiliating role that is basically a slave.  This isn’t really the case at all.  Eddie Murphy does play the role of second-banana but it’s isn’t a slave role.  Mushu, much like Mulan, goes off on his mission largely through happenstance. 

The role, effectively, is continuing the comedy sidekicks that had existed in nearly every Disney film since Aladdin – a comedian doing their shtick in a role that required their comic talents whether it was played by Danny DeVito in Hercules, Jason Alexander in Hunchback, Nathan Lane in The Lion King or further Rosie O’Donnell in Tarzan.  They all played second-fiddle to the lead and none, not even Murphy, played the role of slavish servant.  Murphy’s Mushu, even by those who contextualize him as a slave, is generally forgiven by most Disney aficionados because he fills the requirements of the role – he’s funny.  Actually, he’s the funniest of the Disney sidekicks since Robin Williams’ Genie.

Mushu gives the film its comedy, but it is Mulan who gives the film a purpose.  This is the first time that a Disney heroine has attributes that could make her a role model.  She has no use for her stated social position.  She is a tiger who is required to be a flower and the results aren’t surprising.  She’s better in a man’s role then she is the role required by the patriarchy.  That’s a good lesson for young girls, and for young people in general.  Find who you are, figure out your purpose in this crazy world and move with your strengths.  In Mulan’s case, it’s a dangerous precedent because she is living at a moment when such thinking could get her killed.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.