Apologies to all whose have continued singing “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” in their heads – or out loud – upon reading the title.
The 2010s have been a relatively strong decade for Disney princesses’ feminist credentials. Tangled, Brave, Frozen, and Moana saw some strong young ladies take their lives and love (the latter thankfully no longer a requirement) into their own hands. However, twenty years ago this week Mulan was released – a film which redefined the Disney heroine as an independent, idealistic author of her own destiny. The film is ninety minutes of nonstop action, adventure, and hijinks held together by killer songs and a more subversive message than Disney’s previous (and many of its subsequent) offerings. While certainly not the first feminist children’s film, it broke the prince-rescuing-princess, love-conquers-all mould in favour of one young woman’s quest to save her family and country. Finding love along the way was just a consequence of disguising herself as a man and joining the army.
Mulan remains one of Disney’s grittiest heroines – unflinchingly loyal to her family, whether by blood or by soldierly bond and unconcerned with convention except where it brings sadness to those around her. Her opening scenes demonstrate her (often exasperating) ingenuity, as she enlists her dog to help with her morning chores with unsurprisingly chaotic results. She demonstrates the kind heart of Cinderella with a fiercely modern resourcefulness and stubbornness – an inspiration to girls and boys of all ages.
Mulan’s escapades navigating the army’s heavily masculine world comprise the film’s heart. While the cross-dressing complications are often played for laughs – see, Mulan’s attempt at spitting, manly voice, and scarring experience with bathing men – they never mock the heroine or the more good-natured of the men around her. The gender-bending shenanigans gently poke fun at the restrictions imposed by society on behaviour, attire, and pompous closed-minded asses (also, it is just delightful seeing Ling, Yao, and Chin Po still in their drag in their final appearance in front of the Emperor’s entire court). The dramatic stakes are incredibly high during these scenes as well: Mulan’s actions have invited a death sentence, which is only mitigated by the fact that she saved her captain’s life. And, as in many a good narrative, the comic and tragic elements come together in the message that gender does not define worth – a message subsequently taken further in Brave and Moana, where the heroines do not have to disguise themselves to be taken seriously.
While none of the gender role reversals displayed in Mulan is ground-breaking in 2018 – and, judging by Disney’s conservative track record, it is hard to imagine any of it was revolutionary even in 1998 – the film’s limited subversion of gender roles and heterosexuality is nonetheless a delight. While we are still waiting on a proper exclusively gay moment from Disney, by all rights Captain Shang should be a bisexual icon. And yes, pairing off Mulan and Shang might have been an obligation of the Disney formula (Brave was still fourteen years away), but can anyone deny that they have serious chemistry, even (especially?) before she’s revealed to be a woman?
The film is solidly entertaining even outside the cross-dressing hijinks. Many of the funniest lines are almost thrown away (“Order, order!” being followed by the soldiers requesting their favourite dishes, “And you, oh demoted one”, and “dishonour on you, dishonour on your cow” being standouts among these), which naturally makes them all the more hilarious. Eddie Murphy humour may feel very 90s, but Mushu remains entertaining (and his cricket friend adorably out of its depth). At the very least, the film has not aged in a seriously problematic way – something that cannot be said of all of Disney’s output.
The songs are absolute crackers; “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is absolutely one of Disney’s top three greatest hits and greatest earworms (god bless Donny Osmond). “Reflection” is the original Disney power ballad before Frozen’s 2013 release; if Elsa’s is a song of freedom, Mulan’s painfully captures the angst of trying to fit societal standards she is not meant for. The art design – influenced by Chinese painting, German expressionism, and spaghetti westerns – is gorgeous; even the horses look like those found in the artwork of the Ming and Qing dynasties (except the Hun’s ponies, which look like the stockier Mongolian horses). Though computer animation has progressed in the past two decades, the avalanche still terrifies, the Forbidden City still impresses, and Shang is still hot.
There is a live action, song-free version in the works, but to be honest Disney struck gold the first time: it will be highly unlikely that the 2020 release tops its animated older cousin (especially since it has been reported that Shang is being replaced by some rando who is only attracted to Mulan after it is revealed she’s a woman – removing the delightful bisexual subtext). This new film is going to have to work overtime to justify its existence with the current incarnation being so damn good.
Mulan is not without its flaws – the voice cast features several white actors, the story varies tremendously from the original legend, and despite the art department’s dedication Disney’s representation of Chinese culture is filtered through a Western lens. While the familial values demonstrated by Mulan’s tight-knit household are in line with traditional Chinese principles, the self-reliant and individualistic ideals the film espouses are more often seen in Western narratives – these qualities are often seen as self-aggrandising and selfish in Chinese culture. As the film was intended for Disney’s main Western audience, these casting and thematic changes do not detract from the overall fun; butchering another country’s legends for a white audience, however, is never the best move.
Despite Shang’s best attempts to make a man out of his army, bravery, loyalty, intelligence, and kindness are never limited to one gender. Twenty years on, Mulan remains one of Disney’s greatest hits, and it has been excellent to see more independent, inspirational women headlining the entertainment giant’s recent output.