Mulan is an unlikely princess who may have the looks to fit in with a rather gender-divided Chinese society, but is unfortunately too clumsy to do so. She just wants to impress the matchmaker, be matched up with a husband, and live a typical life as set by this society. However, Mulan can’t seem to impress the matchmaker, and thus, she sings Reflection. I mean, if Mulan can sing like that, why doesn’t she just become a professional singer? All jokes aside, the film moves away from this internal conflict as a more pressing one develops. With the attack of the Huns on China, Mulan’s weak father is recruited into the Chinese army. This is when Mulan honorably replaces him in the army not knowing that it is here where she’ll finds the answers to her personal struggle.
This movie is set in an enchanted castle where household items dance and sing… okay, just kidding, a majority of this movie is spent in a Chinese army… and unfortunately, Mulan does not run into a magic carpet to make this Chinese army any more magical. Don’t get me wrong, the time spent in the army is enjoyable, but in a comedic way which comes off as unambitious. It’s completely fine that Disney went for the more humorous route with the army but there’s something about this route that always makes a kid’s movie seem like it’s not taking itself seriously. In short, Mulan loses a lot of Disney’s fairytale allure by relying more on its slap-stick humor and fun-spirit, even as it has some more serious moments in the film.
Mulan is interesting because she’s a solid entry in the Disney princess line-up without following in the footsteps of Ariel and Belle. While they have their own dreams and desires, Mulan just wants to be happy when she looks at her reflection. In other words, Mulan cares more about what’s inside of her and not disappointing her family than about escaping societal norms and what she wants. In the end, this turns out to be more of a refreshing decision than a hurtful one since Mulan now offers a pursuit of self as opposed to a pursuit of dreams. This makes Mulan, the Disney princess herself, one of the unique aspects of this film that makes it worth viewing. While Mulan, like the storytelling, certainly isn’t as ambitious as Ariel and Belle, she is proactive, determined, and an independent female lead; a perfect Disney princess to lead any feminist movement.
Bringing it all together
The good thing that came out of Disney’s more lax approach to Mulan is the songs. While Hercules and its less-serious approach failed at reviving songs the likes of Under the Sea, although it hit on more emotional songs like Go the Distance, Disney finally finds its catchy musical groove with I’ll Make a Man Out of You and, for what it’s worth, we’ll include A Girl Worth Fighting For. Unfortunately, Disney didn’t get the memo about annoying sidekicks, and this film is plagued by a lack of detail to its other characters. Mushu the dragon is the comic-relief character out of place, there is nothing interesting about Prince Shang, and the Chinese ancestors are not that funny. Really, they should have been used to try to increase the mysticism of its Chinese setting. Nonetheless, Disney sent their artists to China for a couple of weeks before the production of Mulan, and this helped the animation department provide its most authentic feel as opposed to Disney’s tendency for caricatures.
I really liked the premise of Mulan, but Disney is unable to give its audiences a confident closure to Mulan’s quest of self by the time the credits roll. Yes, Mulan learns during the time spent in the army that she is an awesome person despite her faults, but after saving the entirety of China, she just goes back to the life she was going to live otherwise. Talk about a let-down. This was not as problematic as it could have been because Disney does a very nice job at giving us confidence in Mulan’s personality, and so as long as Shang isn’t a shallow misogynist, we all know deep inside that Mulan will find her happy ending.
After critical complaints rolled in after Pocahontas, Disney seemed to make more calculated moves rather than rising up to the challenge and trying to re-spark the magic that made the early Disney Renaissance movies so good. In this one, they tackled the criticisms their Disney princesses were under, and while they do deliver their most manly female lead yet, this is largely negated by the lack of charm this movie carries. Yes, I liked every scene we spent in the army; it was fun, there were the songs, and Mulan’s friends are great, but this is certainly not the atmosphere that we have all come to love and adore from Disney.