Time to carry on to our next Disney Princess movie: Mulan.
I’m going to critique it–because you do you and all–but overall, I enjoyed this movie.
As always with my Disney Princess Movie reviews, SPOILERS will be plentiful.
After the Huns attack, the Emperor orders that one man from every household must join the army to defend China. To keep her elderly father safe, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) disguises herself as a boy and secretly takes his place.
1. Y’all. Mulan is kinda dark.
Maybe not The Hunchback of Notre Dame dark, but still. There’s some grim shit happening here. Of course that makes sense considering the story takes place during a war and all, and yeah, the violent deaths are mostly happening off screen because, like, it’s a Disney Princess Movie, not an animated Saving Private Ryan. Still, the implications are pretty clear. The very first scene in the movie cuts away before Bad Guy Shan Yu totally impales a dude with a burning flagpole, like, we all know that’s just about to happen, right? Shan Yu also later sets two prisoners free to run back to the Emperor before casually asking his archer how many men it really takes to pass along a message.
And then, as the troops are singing a jaunty, cheerful Disney song about ideal girls worth fighting for, they very abruptly discover this:
Yeah. A few more steps through that welcoming sight, and our heroes will stumble over the carcasses of the greater majority of the Imperial Army, who has been ambushed and massacred by the Huns. And did I mention General Li, the love interest’s daddy, is one of the fallen?
I’m just saying. Shit gets real in Mulan.
2. But let’s step back a bit so we can discuss Mulan herself.
I like Mulan, although I do feel like her arc could use a bit of a stronger setup. Like the majority of Disney Princesses in the 80’s and 90’s, she’s painted as just a little bit of an outsider, not quite living up to parental or societal expectations and still trying to find her niche . . . but it feels a bit too generic for my tastes, possibly because I never have a particularly good sense of what’s actually different about her. I get that she has to write down a cheat sheet on the back of her arm so she can try (and fail) to please the matchmaker, and I see she’s good at the game the two old guys are playing, but . . . that’s about it. Unlike Ariel (or to a lesser extent, Jasmine), Mulan doesn’t seem to have a clearly defined dream of leaving her world behind and exploring other places. Unlike Belle, she doesn’t do a specific thing that makes her seem particularly strange to others. And sure, her trip to the matchmaker’s turns out to be an unmitigated disaster, but really, that’s at least 90% the cricket’s fault. If she’s going to be Not Quite Like Other Girls, I wish there was a little more time spent on how. If she’s going to be a perennial screwup no matter how hard she tries, I wish she did a little more of her own screwing up.
That all being said, Mulan is still pretty damn awesome. Going to fight in a war when she has, as far as I can tell, absolutely no combat training whatsoever, all to keep her father safe . . . I mean, that’s some Katniss Everdeen School of Heroism right there, only probably way braver because Mulan doesn’t actually know how to shoot a bow and she’s facing, like, way more enemies. (Though I guess to be fair, she also has more allies.) Unsurprisingly, Mulan is a rather inept soldier at first, but she’s actually in pretty good company for that, as she seems to have landed squarely in the Underdog Misfit Troop. And once she successfully gets through her training montage, she’s pretty badass, like she does some crazy Arrow shit, shooting an arrow mid-air to save herself, Shang, Mushu, the not-so-lucky cricket, AND her horse as they’re all literally falling off a cliff.
3. Disappointingly, her love interest, Shang, is nowhere near as impressive.
I feel a little bad about that, because I like B.D. Wong, who provides the voice work here. But I just can’t make myself warm up to Shang, partly because of how he reacts when he finds out that Mulan is a girl (which we’ll come back to in a while), but mostly because he feels like an excessively egregious love interest. All the other Disney Princess movies thus far, I’ve felt like the main guy more or less fits into the narrative as a romantic lead (despite in some cases not being at all historically accurate–cough cough, Pocahontas). But not only does Mulan’s story not require a love interest at all, their romance is incredibly lackluster, probably because the movie doesn’t allow for the two characters to really flirt or romantically bond while Shang believes Mulan is a boy. Which, yeah, not surprising because 1998 and Disney. But it is unfortunate, not just because that would make their relationship infinitely more interesting, but because Shang and Mulan really don’t spend that much time together once Shang knows the truth, and the time they do spend is more Fight the Bad Guy Before He Kills The Emperor time, not Process Our Romantic Feelings and/or Kissy Kissy time. At they least they don’t instantly get married at the end or anything, but still. Boo.
As a leader/mentor/friend figure, I could totally deal with Shang. As a love interest, I don’t buy him even a little because, to me, this reads like like yet another story where the heroine falls for a dude because that’s just how it is; after all, how could a girl have a happy ending without at least a promised romance, right?
4. The other reason I struggle with Shang, of course, is that after Major Badass Mulan saves his ass, not to mention–as far as they know–China, his response is to reject her heroism and abandon her in the snow. (Not to mention entirely disregard her incredibly valuable information later, like a jackass.)
Yes, I know. Different time, different culture, and by protocol, Shang was supposed to kill her on the spot, rather than just ditch her ass in the Pass of Caradhras. I don’t care. Maybe it’s my usual defective sense of romance, or just my general lack of fucks to give about anything due to the horrifying direction my country is headed, but IMO, Shang is a giant baby here and totally does not deserve Mulan at all, and also, just, fuck that guy.
(In my head canon, Mushu is wrong when he suggests that Mulan likes Shang romantically; she only respects him as a leader and warrior, and forgives him for his abandonment because she’s obviously a better person than I am. Also, she’s probably both ace and aro, based on both my wanting to see more ace and/or aro characters, but also based on the line about her never wanting to see a naked guy again. Look, don’t tell me this would never happen in a Disney movie: that’s exactly why they call it a “head canon.”)
5. Meanwhile, let’s briefly talk about this guy.
It might surprise you to know this, but the dude with the Ominous Glowy Eyes of Doom and Slightly Pointy Teeth is, in fact, our bad guy. This is Shan Yu, who, oddly, is voiced by Miguel Ferrer. I mean, I like Miguel Ferrer. I grew up on Hot Shots! Part Deux and The Stand miniseries, after all, not to mention Albert from Twin Peaks is kind of the best–but still, it’s hard to get around the fact that Ferrer is not Chinese, or for that matter, even Asian. But that’s true of a few people in this movie: while the majority of characters are voiced by some awesome Asian-American actors like James Hong, James Shigeta, Pat Morita, George Takei, and of course the aforementioned BD Wong and Ming-Na Wen, the cast also includes Eddie Murphy, Harvey Fierstein, and Miriam Margolyes, and while I suppose Murphy is playing a dragon (named, you know, Mushu), Fierstein and Margolyes are definitely playing Chinese people. So that’s a bit disappointing, even though I like Margolyes, and I haven’t heard Fierstein’s distinctively raspy voice since, what, Independence Day?
Let’s see, where was I? Yes, Shan Yu (a name I mostly associate with Firefly, thus why Michael Fairman’s voice is looping over and over in my head as I type this review). Shan Yu is an okay villain: creepier than some (Ratcliffe, for instance) but never going to be a favorite, either. He doesn’t stand out enough, I think, possibly because he doesn’t have an awesome villain song, or maybe because his fashion sense is not exciting, like, where is his fabulous Maleficent hat? I’m disappointed in you, Shan Yu. Regardless, in both Mulan and Pocahontas, the heroines absolutely outshine their villains.
6. I can’t say that the music overall does much for me. The most memorable song is probably “I’ll Make A Man Out of You,” or at least that’s the only one I can think offhand. Although, actually, there is one song I remember, not because it’s especially catchy or awesome, but because I don’t understand what the hell it’s doing in this movie, and that song is “Short Hair.”
Do you remember this song? If you don’t, you should listen to it again, because a little over a minute in, this song suddenly becomes HELLA 80’s, and I’m like, “Wait, WTF? What’s happening right now? Are we having a Ladyhawke moment or something?” I mean, it’s actually kind of growing on me, but it was so weird when I first heard it.
7. As far as our comical mentor/sidekick dragon Mushu goes?
You know, he’s funny, like, he definitely has some of the best lines, but occasionally he also feels . . . I don’t know, loud? Distracting? Trying too hard for the zany good fun? Mushu kind of reminds me of the Genie from Aladdin, but for me he’s a bit less successful, although I’m not sure if that’s just because I prefer Robin William’s performance, or if it’s just because I was a kid when I watched Aladdin for the first time and now I’m an adult watching Mulan. Like, maybe it’s just a nostalgia factor. (That could be a thing with the music, too.) Either way, it wasn’t a major problem I had with the story, just something I noticed along the way.
8. This feels like it’s turning out to be a more negative review than I anticipated because I actually did enjoy watching this movie for the most part, other than wanting to throw snowballs at Shang’s head. (Oh, and I often wanted to hide under a snowbank while Mulan was badly pretending to be “manly,” because that shit was just painful–not unfunny painful, but the kind of humor that makes me want to dive under my couch pillows and desperately wait for the embarrassment to stop. It’s never been my favorite kind of comedy, although I recognize this is a personal flaw.)
On the other hand, Mulan has one awesome thing going for it that, so far as I remember, none of the other Disney Princess movies have had thus far: Mulan herself is the one who takes down the bad guy.
Oh, okay, Mushu technically sets off the giant firework rocket. But it’s Mulan’s plan, and she’s the one who knocks Shan Yu down and traps him with his own sword, so that he can’t escape when the rocket hits him, carries him away, and explodes. (This is, by the way, a total Broken Arrow death, and I LOVE it. Okay, it’s not quite as ridiculous because Shan Yu isn’t a crazy person who manfully stands up to the rocket like John Travolta, but still. Made me laugh.) Generally in Disney movies, the love interest kills the villain, or the villain dies due to his particularly poor strategic planning, or even occasionally because of the clear will of God, as evidenced by an exceptionally convenient bolt of lightning. The final battle between Mulan and Shan Yu is entirely different, however, and is absolutely one of my favorite things in this whole movie.
9. I am kind of disappointed that Mulan goes home, though, and doesn’t stay on as an advisor to the Emperor, mostly because I don’t have a great idea of what she’s going to do there but marry Shang, and you already know how I feel about that. Not that in theory I have any problem with her wanting to go home and spend time with her parents, if that’s what’s going to make her happy, just . . . I guess I don’t have a firm grasp on what she wants for herself, either at the beginning or at the end of the movie. She saves her father, which is bold. She saves China, which is badass. But, perhaps erroneously, I guess I never got the impression that what Mulan wanted more than anything was to settle down at home with a husband, so when it seems like that’s how her story is going to resolve . . . it feels off to me, somehow.
10. Finally, some random notes:
10A. This is probably not the first Disney movie to make a boob joke, but it’s the first one that comes to mind. (Well. Ursula does sing about body language, although that’s not explicitly boobs. I’ll let you be the judge of this one.)
10B. I would probably think a lot more of Shang if he had dressed up as a courtesan with the other guys.
Seriously, I might have turned right around on him. Alas, such was not the case because Shang is all Dignified and Manly. (I must admit that, at first, I didn’t entirely get their plan, so I found myself thinking, Guys, don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the reversal here, but . . . why do you have to dress up like girls to climb a wall again?)
10C. Confession: I like Little Brother, the dog, a bit more than I like Mushu.
10D. The lucky cricket’s name is Cri-Kee? Oh, Disney.
10E. Finally, in regards to makeup:
My God, I have not been this envious of makeup since Total Recall. Look! Look at how easily it comes off! One swipe, and it’s gone! Science, you have given me vaccines. You have given me a way to talk to someone across the world from my couch. You’ve given me computers that are smaller than my hand. Can I please have a makeup remover that works this easily and instantaneously? THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR YOU, SCIENCE.
Fa Li: “I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck.”
Grandmother Fa: “How lucky can they be? They’re dead.”
Mulan: “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
Grandmother Fa (in background): “Would you like to stay forever?”
Mushu: “My little baby, off to destroy people.”
Old Female Ancestor: “Your misguidance led Fa Deng to disaster!”
Fa Deng (holding his own severed head): “Yeah, thanks a lot.”
Mulan: “I never want to see a naked man again.”
(A huge group of naked men immediately run by.)
Mushu: “What’s the plan?”
Mulan: “Ummm . . . ”
(Mushu is searching for Mulan underneath the snow.)
(Mushu pulls Hun soldier up by the hair, and quickly pushes him back down.)
Mushu: “Did I hear someone ask for a miracle? Let me hear you say ‘aaah’!”
Mulan (frightened): “AHHH!”
Mushu: “That’s close enough.”
Mushu: “We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die! We’re definitely gonna die! No way we survive this! Death is coming!”
Fa Zhou: “I’m going to pray some more.”
(After having sent two enemy scouts back to deliver a message.)
Shan-Yu: “How many men does it take to deliver a message?”
I definitely enjoyed Mulan more than this review probably makes it sound. I especially liked Mulan herself, who’s an extremely enjoyable and active heroine. But though I acknowledge that I’m probably alone in this, making Shang a love interest really does bring the story down for me. (Though I am happy to hear, at least, that Disney is no longer planning to whitewash him in the eventual live-action update because that’s some serious bullshit. Still. I am absolutely down for an aro Disney Princess.)
Anything a guy can do a girl can do better. Though they probably won’t take her seriously unless she’s wearing a boy’s clothes, or unless they literally see her blowing up a would-be assassin with a rocket.