Mulan is a film that took a bold leap from other Disney films that had come before it, leaving behind a central focus on romance or cutesy animal sidekicks, and instead crafting a well executed story of self-empowerment, courage, and challenging conventions, all within an entertaining war story.
Based upon the Chinese myth, Mulan tells the story of Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), a young woman who feels out of place within her family and society. Wanting nothing more than to be herself, she’s expected to find herself a husband and have a family, being the demure and quiet wife that society says she should be.
When an army of Huns led by Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) invades China, the Emperor (Pat Morita) orders that men from each family must join the Chinese army. With Mulan’s father old and injured, she cuts her hair, steals his sword and armour, and takes his place.
What ensues is an uplifting and humorous story as Mulan tries to keep her true identity of a woman secret, whilst trying to forge herself into a soldier. The training sequences are some of the more fun moments in the movie, with Mulan and her three fellow recruits Yao (Harry Fierstein), Ling (Gedde Watanabe), and Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo) trying desperately to become more than the four losers they start off as.
They’re fun moments, with the four characters going through some fun changes as they go from enemies to fast friends, in a bond that feels believable and well forged by the time they actually come to fight in the war.
The four songs in the film are well made, and quite memorable, the training montage song ‘I’ll Make A Man Out Of You’ is the best music piece in the film, and coupled with Mulan using her brain to overcome her challenges and begin to become a competent soldier, is a great, inspiring moment.
Despite having a lot of humour in it, Mulan also has some surprisingly dramatic moments, such as Mulan donning her father’s armour and escaping into the night, and the new recruits finding the remains of the defeated Chinese army. But the best has to be the dramatic confrontation between Mulan and the Hun army as they charge down a snowy mountaintop on horseback. Not only is the scene visually dramatic and executed with sweeping camera shots, but it showcases how smart Mulan is, all but destroying the entire Hun army with one rocket.
What really makes Mulan great, however, is that it’s a story about female empowerment. Whilst people may say that Frozen is a great example of a Disney film with a strong female hero in Elsa, Mulan did it first, and did it better. She fought against the shackles of her society, she put her life in mortal danger, she defended her country from destruction, and saved an Empire, all without magical powers. Whether you’re female or not, you can’t help but watch Mulan and be both impressed and inspired by the story.
It being a Disney film there is a romance element to the story, as Mulan falls in love with her commanding officer, Captain Li Shang (D.B. Wong), but this isn’t a huge part of the story, and is more of a background element than something that’s pushed in your face. So even if you’re not into romance in any way it won’t interfere with your enjoyment of the film.
The one thing that might let the film down for some is the inclusion of the almost mandatory ‘comedy’ sidekicks, this time in the form of a lucky cricket, and the tiny dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy). Whilst the cricket is bearable (as it doesn’t talk or really do a great deal) Mushu is very annoying in most of the scenes that he is in, and feels more out of place than anything else.
Mulan is a Disney film that is more than just a fairytale or love story, it’s an ancient epic that inspires and impresses, that shows that people can break free from rigid roles or expectations and be the people that they really are inside. It shows that bravery can come from more than just heroic military feats, but from the courage to stand up and be yourself.