Disney films have always been designed to appeal to the whole family, from the cutesy cartoon characters to appeal to the kids to some of the more “over their heads” language and jokes to keep the parents entertained. Mulan is slightly different to the usual Disney line though, with a more mature subject matter.
The story of Hua Mulan, a young woman who disguised herself as a man to serve in the Chinese army, has inspired many paintings, songs, and poems in Chinese folklore. Legend has it that Hua Mulan’s father received a conscription notice to serve in the Emperor’s army. However, because her father was old and ailing, Mulan took it upon herself to disguise herself as a man and take his place on the battlefield. Over the next several years, Mulan managed to keep her identity a secret as she and her fellow soldiers fought many battles defending China from its enemies. It was not until after the fighting was over that Mulan’s fellow soldiers discovered her secret when they visited her home. When this film was first released in 1998, this legend was virtually unknown in the western world. Yet now, thanks to it hitting the big screen as an animated musical it is a story known all over the globe.
The story of Mulan begins with the Huns, led by the merciless Shan-Yu, climbing over the Great Wall of China and starting a war. The Emperor issues a declaration of war and sends a decree for every family in China to send one man to join the Imperial Army. When the Emperor’s counsel comes knocking at the Fa household to serve a conscription notice, Fa Zhou boldly accepts his duty, but it is apparent that he is no shape to be going to war. His daughter, Mulan, steals away in the night to take her father’s place. However, Mulan’s actions are also driven by another desire – to make her own mark in the world, and not be relegated to the traditional life of an obedient wife.
Disguised as a man, Mulan reports for duty at a training camp as Fa Ping, Fa Zhou’s ‘son’. Mulan’s ancestors are worried about the fate of the young girl in this violent atmosphere so is not used to. The First Ancestor (who, I might add is voiced by the brilliant George Takei from Star Trek) sends a guardian to protect Mulan in the form of a dragon named Mushu (the inimitable Eddie Murphy). It is Mushu that gives Mulan her ‘education’ on how to be a ‘man’, teaching her all the wrong things about getting by in a man’s world. However, the war continues to advance as Shan-Yu and his army conquers more and more of the countryside, pressing Mulan and her fellow soldiers into service.
Like almost all films that emerge from the House of Mouse this film manages to entertain, make you laugh, make you cry and even inspire you. Every member of the family takes something away from Mulan, even if it is only 88 minutes of escapism from the world around you. You can’t help but smile at this film, no matter how hard you try, even if it is only at Eddie Murphy’s Mushu. At the same time though, Mulan is at times very moving and touching enough to make even the most jaded moviegoer glassy-eyed. I’m not embarrassed to admit I get a lump in my throat watching it (but I am a baby and cry at most Disney epics!)
There are some remarkable animation sequences that are ahead of their time. The most impressive are a massive battle scene where hundreds of Hun on horseback stomp trails through the perfect snow on the mountains and a hugely grand crowd scene at the Imperial Palace. Also, Mulan breaks ground and steers away from the typical damsel in distress, passive heroines Disney all too often use. By having Mulan in the lead exuding ‘girl power’ and making all the big decisions she is, indeed, a sharp contrast.
I’ll never get bored of the usual Disney princesses that wear huge dresses and need rescuing by their very own Prince Charming. That will always be the epitome of happily ever after to me, but I do think there’ll always be a little bit of Mulan and her “sisters are doing it for themselves” attitude in there too.