First Theatrical Release: June 19, 1998
First Home Viewing Release: February 2, 1999
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My Big Box o’ Disney Love
Bechdel Test Score: Passed, but barely! Female characters include Mulan, her mother and grandmother, the matchmaker and her sidekicks, and some random ancestors. It’s the awakening of the ancestors that gives this movie its passing score, as there is more than one female spirit present and they are discussing Mulan/the family in general rather than a man.
Mulan was the first and only movie from the Renaissance era that disappointed me the first time I watched it.
:: Ducks to avoid tomatoes tossed by film critics and feminists ::
It was also the first movie from that era I only saw once in the theater. I drove around analyzing why we didn’t love it with my younger sister after we’d gone to the first possible showing on release day. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the movie more for what it is than what I wanted it to be. Because like every good budding feminist, I had read my share of books about girls who disguised themselves as boys to take advantage of the greater opportunities afforded them. And I had a version of Mulan in my head years before it was released — and I liked my version better.
I don’t remember my version anymore, but I think I was not quite sure how to react to a movie that was more emotionally subdued after the high drama of movies like The Lion King and Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As an adult, I admire that Mulan is a more restrained film, with no huge declarations of love or dark, dramatic musical numbers featuring the villain. I especially love that with this movie Disney finally broke its pattern of sexualizing its leading ladies, and that Mulan spends the movie learning how to more completely be herself rather than worrying about “performing” in a way that is appealing to men (think Jasmine’s sashaying hips as she approaches Prince Ali on the balcony, or Meg’s sultry glance over her shoulder when she first encounters Herc). Although Mulan is attracted to Shang, this attraction never defines her, nor does it drive the emotional heft of the movie.
I think that may have been my biggest disappointment when I was younger and a total junkie for Disney romance. This movie doesn’t even feature a kiss!
I’m over that now (sort of) and better able to see this movie on its merits, which are myriad. This is a movie that pretty much does everything right — and yet still does not make me feel all the feels of earlier movies. This is probably one of its merits, that it doesn’t use the manipulation of emotion to disguise potentially questionable messages. Still, I do like those villain song numbers.
But this movie is the fave of many feminists for a reason, and there is absolutely nothing about its messaging that makes me feel squeamish. Quite the opposite. There are a lot of things Disney does “right” in this movie, but these are the two that strike me most strongly.
Disney Comes Out for Androgyny
Disney deserves some of the flak it gets for its characters’ conformity to idealized gender norms, especially when it comes to body type and physical appearance. While it doesn’t exactly break the mold here, particularly in its presentation of the oh-so-manly Shang, the storyline requires that Mulan be less of a perfect “hourglass” than her predecessors. More important than that, though, are the messages the movie sends about what it means to ACT like a woman or a man.
The one scene that seems to raise feminist ire in this movie is the “matchmaker” sequence at the beginning. I’m not sure why, since the whole reason for this scene’s existence is to reveal that Mulan does not feel like herself “performing” femininity in the way that it is traditionally valued in her culture. When she disguises herself as a boy to join the army, she attempts to “perform” masculinity in a similar way — lowering her voice, attempting to hock loogies, punching other soldiers in the arm, swaggering. Her failure in these attempts is funny not just because she wears the mantle of masculinity so awkwardly, but because hyper-gendered behavior IS pretty ridiculous. It’s only when she stops trying to “act” like a man that the other soldiers stop looking askance at her. Rather than focusing on how to pass herself off, she begins to cultivate attributes that are valuable regardless of gender, such as perseverance, innovation, and independence (as evidenced by her return to the camp after Shang tries to send her home; her discovery of how to use the metal weights to help her retrieve the arrow atop a pole; and her decision to fire the last cannon at the mountaintop against Shang’s orders to fire it at Shan Yu, leader of the Huns, respectively).
As the movie goes on, we have less and less of a sense that Mulan is “pretending” and more that she has found a way to “be herself” even as she pulls off the ultimate deception. One could even read queer commentary into the movie, especially when Mulan admits that she pursued life as a soldier not for her father, but for herself. Not to mention that Shang realizes his attraction to her mere days after believing she was a man (one of my good friends theorized that Shang is/was gay and was attracted to Mulan as Ping, which was why it was especially upsetting to discover that he was a she.) And when Mulan saves China at the end of the movie, she does it as herself (while her fellow soldiers get a taste of what she endured as they disguise themselves as concubines). There’s even a bit of poignant social commentary when Mulan tries to get the attention of the soldiers and crowd and they ignore her, as Mushu reminds her that, “Hey, you’re a girl again.”
She is a girl again, but she is still Ping, and she never stopped being Mulan, and the development of her inner strength that is impervious to gender serves her and her country well in the end — and brings her the quiet pride and acceptance she’s been searching for since the movie’s opening.
Psychological thought, led by the pioneering work of Sandra Bern, has long held that androgynous individuals are the most mentally healthy. It may have taken 60 years, but I’m glad Disney finally jumped on that bandwagon.
War is Always the Real Villain
Shan Yu is possibly the most downplayed villain in Disney history. He has very few lines in the movie, conveying nearly all with his evil grin and gleaming eyes. Mulan does not even encounter him until the very end, and even then he is far less important than what he represents — the invasion of China. Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that he has absolutely no personal vendetta against Mulan. He doesn’t care that she violated social norms by joining the army. He doesn’t hold a grudge against Ping for bringing the mountain down on his army. His antagonism is totally detached, theoretical — he is out to conquer China, and he’ll cut through anyone and anything that stands in his way. Nothing personal.
That’s because in Mulan, the primary antagonist is not the villain, but rather the specter of war. It is because of war that Mulan’s father was initially disabled, and it’s a war that threatens to call him from the safety of his home and quite likely finish him off. It is war that pushes Mulan to do the unthinkable — because war is unthinkable.
Once when I was staying with a friend, she suggested that we watch Mulan because she had never seen it, but her roommate had recommended it as a Disney movie she would feel comfortable getting behind. Never one to turn down a Disney movie, I agreed. I observed her shock as the camera panned over the dead Chinese soldiers on the mountaintop, and that’s when I appreciated Disney’s refusal to ignore the reality of this crucial event upon which the whole movie turns: war is not just about training montages (of which Mulan has one of the best, far better than the one in Hercules), or about proving yourself to your fellow soldiers, impressing the captain, pining for girls back home. It’s about the destruction of villages, the slaughter of innocents (which is implied by the doll Mulan finds even though we don’t see the dead bodies of children), and battlefields littered with corpses.
It is mostly about death.
When my friend’s roommate came home, my friend exclaimed, “I can’t believe you didn’t warn me! That wasn’t the lighthearted movie I was expecting. That was a movie about WAR.”
War and lightheartedness don’t go hand-in-hand, nor should they. Not even in a Disney movie. Perhaps that is why, despite the way the movie pokes fun at gender roles, despite comic relief moments from Mushu, Crick-ee, and Mulan’s grandmother, the movie remains more subdued than Disney’s other films.
In addition to all the great lessons the movie imparts about gender and being true to oneself, the message behind its central conflict is equally important for children to absorb: war is neither fun nor glorious. Many children must see the realities of war play out within their own lives, but for those who are lucky enough to have it confined to their TV screens, at least Disney offers a socially responsible message to discourage future generations of repeating the same devastating mistakes.