Another film I can vividly recall seeing in theatres, Mulan is based on a Chinese legend. The art, especially in the opening, is beautiful. From there, we begin at the Great Wall of China, closing in on a guard. A falcon swoops by and puts him on edge. His feeling is proven when a slew of grappling hooks fly up and catch on the wall. He rushes to light the fire and sees the falcon land on someone; the legendary Shan Yu, leader of the Hun army. In defiance, the solider lights the brazier, “now all of China knows you’re here.” “Perfect,” Shan Yu replies.
A general sweeps into the emperor’s chambers, announcing that Shan Yu has invaded China. The general immediately offers to have his troops surround the palace. The emperor insists that the troops are needed elsewhere, “send your troops to protect my people.” In addition to the general’s troops, the emperor orders reserves be brought into action, and conscription notices sent out, recruiting new troops. A wise ruler, the emperor does enjoy speaking in metaphors.
Then we meet Mulan, running late to her meeting with the matchmaker and making notes on her arm. Her family pray to their ancestors that Mulan will make a successful match and Bring Honor to Us All. I cannot speak as to the validity or importance of what Mulan goes through, but it was fascinating as a child to watch, and comparing to what I knew of European culture. I agree with the grandmother that the matchmaker is a horrible woman. The women preparing Mulan said that men desired a tiny waist, and yet the matchmaker claims she’s too skinny, “not good for bearing sons.” She finds fault with everything and throws Mulan out after an incident with a cricket. “You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor,” the woman shouts.
Her family is concerned by the news and Mulan blames herself, and who she is. She feels like she is not the “perfect daughter.” “Can it be/I’m not meant to play this part? Now I see/that if I were truly/to be myself/I would break my family’s heart.” “Somehow I cannot hide/who I am/though I’ve tried/when will my reflection show/who I am inside?” Every girl has felt like this; I have felt like this off and on my entire life. Not fitting in, not being like people around you. Luckily, Mulan teaches us different. The imagery of Mulan wiping away her make-up, pausing when she splits her face between the painted bride and her natural look, highlighting how her Reflection doesn’t truly show her. Her father attempts to cheer her up, by offering that the last blossoms to bloom are the most beautiful.
Their talk is interrupted by the arrival of the emperor’s advisor, ordering one man from every family to serve in the army. Mulan’s father is injured from already fighting in one war and there is no son to take his place. Mulan begs Chi Fu to spare her father, but is dismissed and ordered not to speak in a man’s presence. At dinner, she attempts to talk sense into her father, concerned that he will “die for honor.” She’s already witnessed that her father cannot wield a sword any longer; his leg gives out. She understands that if he fights, he will die. But her father is determined to uphold the family’s honor, he knows his place, he angrily shouts, it’s time Mulan learns hers.
She seeks solace under the dragon statue, rain matching her despair, witnessing that her father can’t even comfort her mother. The change in music signals Mulan’s decision. A brief prayer to the ancestors, then she takes the notice and leaves her comb in its place. She cuts her hair and dons her father’s armor. She takes her horse and rides away. Her grandmother senses something is wrong and wakes to realize Mulan is gone. Mulan’s mother begs her husband to go after Mulan; she could be killed in battle. Her father reveals to the audience, that if he exposes Mulan to be a woman, she’d be killed for certain. The ancestors awaken and send tiny dragon Mushu to waken the Great Stone Dragon. The Great Stone Dragon does not waken, so Mushu decides to take the job of protecting Mulan (lying to the ancestors and pretending that the Great Stone Dragon did wake).
Mushu finds Mulan practicing how she’ll approach the men in the camp and blend in; she’s not very good and Mushu puts on a show to introduce himself. He earns a slap when he makes the crack “I can see straight through your armor;” the slap prompts him to declare “Dishonor on you. Dishonor on your cow,” (not a cow, Mushu, Kahn is a horse, but a hilarious line nonetheless that I think everyone who grew up with the movie knows.) Mulan apologizes and the pair attempt to work together. Meanwhile, in camp, the general directs his new captain on his duties to train the new recruits and meet with the main army when finished. The new captain is his son, Shang. And he’s got a lot to cover with the new soldiers; Mulan has already managed to knock everyone over. She clumsily announces her name is “Ping,” and the trio of men she first meets (Yao, Ling, Chin Po) attempt to sabotage her training.
She shows a slight interest in Shang when he removes his shirt and lays out his plan to Make a Man Out of You. [Fun Note: the singing voice of Shang is Donny Osmond]. Qualities of a man include: “tranquil as a forest/but a fire within…you must be swift as a coursing river/with all of the force of a great typhoon/with all of the strength of a raging fire/mysterious as the dark side of the moon.” (Except I thought females were typically attributed to the moon) I still don’t get why they had to climb to the top of a pole wearing weights, but it was funny to see how bad they all were at the beginning. Shang tells Mulan “you’re unsuited for the rage of war/so pack up, go home, you’re through.” Mulan wants to prove herself and gets an idea. She wraps the weights around each other and uses them to pull herself up. After that, she excels at training, demonstrating that brains is better than brawn; one needs to outwit their opponent.
We’ve already seen that Shan Yu is merciless. When he captures two imperial scouts, he informs them that his invasion is a response to China’s unwritten challenge by building the Wall. He lets them go to deliver the message, but then asks his troops how many are needed to deliver a message. The one drawing an arrow replies “one.” (Did not get that reference as a kid). Later, his falcon brings him a doll from a village in the pass, giving him clues that the Imperial Army is waiting for him. As a naive child, I thought he was being nice, wanting to return the little girl’s doll. Nope. He’s really a psychopath.
Mushu and Cricket fake orders so Mulan will see combat. The troops are excited at first, cheerfully singing about A Girl Worth Fighting For. They dismiss “Ping’s” suggestion of “a girl whose got a brain/who always speaks her mind.” The mood changes when they come to the village and find it decimated and in flames. The army is slaughtered, including Shang’s father; we even see the doll, without an owner. Shang takes one moment to remember his father, then instructs his troops that they are the only hope for the Emperor now. Their trek continues. Mushu, goofing around, sets off a rocket, giving away the troops’ position. A single arrow manages to hit Shang, which he immediately removes, no harm done (not factual). The Hun army impressively lines up on the top of the ridge, then rides down amidst canon fire (a CGI masterpiece). Shang reserves the last canon for Shan Yu, but Mulan gets an idea again. She takes the canon and stops right in front of the Hun leader, but fires at the mountain behind him. Starting an avalanche. The Hun realizes what the Chinese solider has done (love Mulan’s sassy smirk) and swipes with his sword (again, why are you using a jagged sword? That cannot be the most efficient weapon!)
Shang has raced forward to help “Ping” but she dashes back and pulls him away from the onrushing snow. Kahn gets free to rescue them. Shang is pulled away and once Mulan has fought back to the surface, she grabs his unconscious body. Being resourceful, she manages to get both of them to safety. Once Shang has caught his breath, his thanks “Ping” for his bravery; calling him “the craziest man I’ve ever met,” and “from now on, you have my trust.” Mulan realizes she’s injured and the troops get her aid. She’s revealed as a woman. Chi Fu is a jerk and refers to her as a “treacherous snake.” Her friends, Yao, Ling, and Chin Po try to save her; Shang spares her life; “a life for a life, my debt is repaid.” They leave her supplies, but move on to the city.
There is a heartfelt scene between Mushu and Mulan on the mountainside. While Mulan did join the army to save her father, she also wanted to prove that she could so something right. So when she looked in the mirror, she’d see someone worthwhile. But she was wrong, she sees nothing. Mulan does not get long to dwell; figures are popping out of the snow; Shan Yu and five of his men survived. Demonstrating her bravery, Mulan rides to the city and attempts to warn Shang and the troops that Shan Yu is still alive. No one listens to her, now that she looks like a woman again; Mulan retorts to Shang “you trusted Ping, why is Mulan any different.” Yet, we can tell that the trio are intrigued. They readily follow her when she has a plan after Shan Yu breaks out of the dragon and kidnaps the Emperor. There’s a reprise of Make a Man Out of You as the men dress as concubines to break into the palace. Shang joins them as they climb the pillars, like Mulan did back at camp.
The trio are the distraction and Shang and Mulan rescue the Emperor. Mulan has the idea to use the lanterns as a zip line, but cuts off her own escape to stay with Shang when Shan Yu violently headbutts the captain. She reveals herself as “the solider from the mountains” who stole away Shan Yu’s victory. Shan Yu chases her, ending up on the roof. All Mulan has left on her is her fan and (totally awesome!) spins it around Shan Yu’s sword, then pins him to the roof as Mushu lights a giant firework. As Shan Yu is carried away, Mulan mutters “get off the roof, get off the roof!” tackling Shang as she escapes the explosion.
Chi Fu once again goes after Mulan, but now Shang and the others stand in front of her, calling her a “hero” when Chi Fu insists she’s a woman, she’s not worth protecting. The Emperor descends and has his say. “You stole your father’s armor, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese army, destroyed my palace, and…you have saved us all.” He bows to her. The crowd follows his lead so soon, everyone is bowing to Mulan. He offers her a position on his staff, but she politely declines; “I’ve been away from home long enough.” He gifts her his medal, “so your family will know what you have done for me”, and Shan Yu’s sword, “so the world will know what you have done for China.” Mulan hugs the Emperor…she can get away with that because she just saved China. Her friends hug her as well and Shang awkwardly compliments her…”you fight good.” The Emperor gives Shang some advice once Mulan has gone: “the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.” Which translates to “you don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.”
Mulan’s father is sitting beneath the cherry blossom tree and Mulan presents her gifts to him, they’re to honor the Fa family. He sets them aside and embraces his daughter; “the greatest gift is having you for a daughter.” Just as the grandmother is making a crack about Mulan should have brought home a man, Shang shows up and again awkwardly compliments Mulan. She saves him by inviting him to dinner. Grandma shouts “would you like to stay forever!” A happy ending.
As a girl growing up in the nineties, I like Mulan for not being a typical princess movie. Mulan is the hero of the film and shows that girls can kick butt too, that girls are just as good as boys. The romance between her and Shang is almost an after-thought, which is okay. They’re also a more modern couple, equal in their relationship. Disney tried to expand that idea with a sequel that is definitely not as good as the first. They threw in problems, which happens in real life, but managed to exaggerate reactions, and Mushu was really annoying.
I enjoy this soundtrack, and really need to get a copy of it. The song over the credits, True To Your Heart was performed by Stevie Wonder and 98˚ (again, it was the nineties and boy bands were all the rage, lol). I also remember an ice show of the film, starring Michelle Kwan and she thus became my favorite figure skater.
As always, I welcome questions or comments.
Up Next: Tarzan