I used to think Mulan was a great girl power movie about challenging social conventions and rising to any challenge. It’s not.
Mulan is based on an actual ancient Chinese fable. In the original, Mulan is the daughter of a general and, despite it being against a woman’s place in society at the time, he taught her to ride and wield a sword. Just like in the film, when one man from each family was drafted, her father volunteered despite his age. Mulan stole her father’s armour, dressed as a man and went to war in his place.
But that’s where the similarities end.
There is no love story in the classic version. Mulan returns home and bestows the armour on her younger brother, now old enough to wear it. She dresses in the clothes of a woman and wears make-up. Eventually her friends from the army return to visit and are shocked by the dazzling woman before them, and her story of the young warrior who became a lady spread across the land.
After the success of Hercules, Disney was hoping to inject some classic artistry back into the mix. In many ways it worked: The sweeping vistas, memorable songs (“I’ll Make a Man out of You” is still catchy today) and Mushu, the comedic sidekick, came together well. But at the same time, it was all very familiar.
The directors were untested. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook were previously character and effects animators on Disney’s big projects, but had not held any leadership positions higher than lead character animators. In the past, this had worked well (the directors on Beauty and the Beast were first-timers, as well, and succeeded beyond all expectations), but with Mulan the pair reverted back to formula.
Disney’s renaissance was over and the formula that worked was well established: Introduce character, have her sing a lovely ballad about what she wants in life, introduce an obstacle, overcome that obstacle, live happily ever after. Introduce a solid group musical number along the way and rake in the profits. To be fair, the formula is executed with grace and impecable artistry. But it is a formula, and the studio had long ceased to push the envelope of what animation was capable of producing, something Walt had always held dear.
The New York Times agreed. “Mulan takes no steps forward when it comes to Disney’s animation renaissance,” the reviewer wrote. “This is the most inert and formulaic of recent Disney animated films, right down to the clowning sidekicks and would-be ‘Under the Sea’ production number.” The Globe and Mail said the film was “a disappointment for anyone hoping the studio would raise the standard of the animated feature to a new level.”
There were some technical advancements. With the focus on computer animation that was everywhere in the late ’90s, an entire new program was developed to render multiple cast members in large, sweeping group scenes like the 2,000 Huns on horseback in one of the film’s key battle scenes. That program, appropriately enough, was called Attila. But in terms of artistry and story telling, there was little innovation for audiences to enjoy, despite the attempt at modernizing a classic tale.
Part of that modernization attempt was its portrayal of women. At first glance, it appears to be a movie about a young woman who follows her own path, becomes a warrior and brings honour to her family. But it’s actually a staunchly anti-feminist story that encourages women to embrace traditional gender roles and accept male leadership. (And the male stereotypes are just as bad.)
In Feminist Film Theory and the Postfeminist Era Disney’s Mulan, Hoi Fung Cheu argues that Mulan’s apparent feminist message is anything but:
You can be anything you want if you work hard within society’s established rules and expectations. But when individualism subverts society’s general ideology – the nation’s belief system that supports its economic and political structures – it becomes dangerous. Mulan may tempt postmodern critics to praise its celebration of border crossing, particularly when Mulan cross-dresses her fellow soldiers in order to infiltrate the captured Forbidden Palace, but in the end, it re-establishes all the borders it breaks down.
She goes on to conclude that the feminism of the film is merely window dressing on a story that actually encourages young women to be strong, yes, but not challenge the rules of the existing patriarchy.
The film closes on the obligatory happy note. However, the reality of Mulan’s future seems bleak – her “feminist” statement has been made; once made, it no longer carries any significance. Father and husband now give meaning to her existence.
The box office responded favourably, though. On a budget of $70-million, it recouped $22-million in its first weekend, falling in second place right behind the X-Files movie. Eventually, the film brought in over $120-million. By the end of the year, it was the second-highest grossing family film of the year, next to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life.
Mulan, for all its glimmer, simply existed. It followed the tried-and-true formula, but failed to push any boundaries and, in some respects, even regressed in its social messaging. The magic, in this movie, is more like a parlour trick.