Mulan has the distinction of being the first and only Disney fairy tale to star an Asian protagonist – given it was made 1998, that’s a bit depressing. Like a fair few items on the Disney back catalogue, it’s currently in the works for a live action remake. I was BESOTTED with this movie as a child, I borrowed the video repeatedly from the library and wrote atrocious fan fiction for a sequel. This was before I realised Mulan 2 already existed and it was terrible.
The fairy tale: Well, to begin with, it’s not exactly a fairy tale. It’s a ballad, and as such I suppose it does not strictly qualify for this project but I love Mulan too much to leave her out. The version of the story I’m using is a 2014 picture book by Li Jian, translated by Yijin Wert, a dual telling in English and Chinese characters.
Mulan is a well-educated child, trained in calligraphy and literature by her father and weaving by her mother. She also learns martial arts and takes to riding as a natural. I approve of this parenting. Then her peaceful world is broken by the arrival of an imperial messenger; her elderly father has been drafted into the army. The only other male member of the family is Mulan’s brother, who is too young to fight, so Mulan dresses herself as a boy to take her father’s place. Her family not only know, they support the decision – her brother and sister help her pack up all the necessary supplies.
She rides away to the frontier, where the army is encamped by the Yellow River. They march on to the northern mountains the next day. Mulan takes no time at all to distinguish herself as a remarkable fighter. Over twelve years of service, she manages to keep her secret and also impress all the soldiers she serves with. The emperor tries to reward her success, but she refuses to accept the offered position and won’t take his gifts – all she wants is a good horse, to go home.
Her parents are thrilled to see her safely returned, even with some army friends in tow; her sister prepares a feast, and her brother cleans her room. Her whole family gather to greet her. Now that the war is over, Mulan discards her warrior’s clothes and dresses as a girl again. When she emerges in a pretty dress with full make-up, her male friends are astonished. Whether it’s that easy to discard one life and slide back into another remains to be seen, but if anyone has the determination to do it, that would be Mulan.
The film: We begin on the Great Wall of China, which is…not doing so great a job, actually, as one unfortunate guard discovers when grappling hooks come flying out of the dark during his patrol and he turns around to find armed Huns storming the watch tower. With great heroism, he manages to set the warning beacon ablaze. Further along the Wall, flames leap up as the signal spreads. “Now all of China knows you’re here,” he snarls, fully aware he’s about to die.
He’s right on both counts.
In the imperial city, General Shang’s first priority is to protect the Emperor, but the Emperor himself is thinking like a winner and planning his counter-attack. He orders a massive recruitment drive across the nation. “One man,” he says, “may be the difference between victory and defeat.” If you are at all familiar with this story, you’ll see a certain irony there.
Outside of the city, word of the invasion has not yet spread and the biggest worry looming on Fa Mulan’s horizon is an appointment with the matchmaker, an event which seems to be a mixture blind date and big exam. She’s prepared by scrawling virtues all over her wrist in case she forgets them. Familiar with Mulan’s inventive streak and her corresponding tendency to wreak unintentional havoc, her father prays devoutly to the ancestors that she’ll make a good impression; waiting in town, Mulan’s mother is having similar doubts. Not so Mulan’s grandmother, she’s invested in a lucky cricket and proceeds to test that luck by crossing a road with her eyes covered. Chaos skipped a generation, I think. I’d like to include a picture at this point, but my internet access is rubbish today and it’s simply not worth the bother. I may come back later.
The second she shows up – late, with straw in her hair – Mulan is hauled off to be scrubbed, polished, painted and coiffed into bridal elegance. She keeps getting distracted, drifting off to advise on chess games and rescue a little girl’s doll, but at last she’s ready to join the queue of hopeful girls standing outside the matchmaker’s house. At this time, in this place, boys bring honour to their families through acts of courage in war and girls bring honour by marrying well. Mulan is committed to getting this right.
Hers is the first name called. During the ensuing interview – and hell, is it like an exam – the ‘lucky’ cricket escapes its cage and and in her increasingly frantic efforts to recapture it, Mulan manages to spill tea everywhere, cover the matchmaker’s face in ink and then there’s an incident with the brazier…long story short, it goes about as badly as it possibly can. Humiliated, Mulan slinks home and hides in the garden. Her father tracks her down, gently assuring her that all she needs is the time to grow into herself.
The adorable moment is ruined when imperial officials ride into town, issuing conscription notices to each family. Mulan’s father is a good man and a loving father, but he’s proud and he accepts the summons despite a bad leg that clearly disqualifies him from service. When Mulan protests, he turns on her with a despairing anger, telling her to learn her place. Through the long night she circles helplessly around the immoveable facts: her father can’t fight, but someone must answer that summons. A girl can’t fight, but someone must answer that summons.
Mulan makes up her mind.
She takes her father’s sword. She puts on his armour. With her hair cut short and the conscription notice in hand, she rides from the courtyard, and by the time anyone realises she is gone it’s too late to fetch her back – if the deception is revealed, she will face execution. Her grandmother prays fervently to the family spirits to keep her safe.
Little does she know, Mulan has been causing debate among her dead relatives as well as the living. Some offer support, others are horrified, most just latch on to the bone of contention to kickstart old grievances (“we can’t all be acupuncturists!”). It’s eventually agreed that one of the family guardians must be woken and sent to protect the Fa family’s wayward daughter. Pint-sized dragon Mushu, disgraced and demoted after failing spectacularly at his last mission, hopes this might be his chance for redemption. Instead he’s sent to wake the Great Stone Dragon, greatest of the guardians.
He does try – the dragon stubbornly refuses to wake and when Mushu gets a bit over-enthusiastic with his gong, the statue promptly falls to bits. Panicked, he flees the scene to go protect Mulan himself.
She’ll need it. The Huns are steadily advancing from the north, leaving a trail of wreckage behind. I find it a little ridiculous how all the ferocious Shan Yu’s men are highly suspicious looking characters with terrible haircuts while the stock standard imperial soldier is a male model.
Anyway, Mulan has reached the army camp and is lurking on the hillside above, practicing being manly. So far the best intro she’s got is “I see you have a sword! I have one too,” which…is probably not an intentional innuendo, but is also not the way to introduce yourself to anyone at all. And she keeps dropping the sword anyway. “It’s going to take a miracle to get me into the army,” she tells her horse. “DID I HEAR SOMEONE ASK FOR A MIRACLE?” Mushu roars.
He puts on a great show with fire and smoke for her, only none of it is his, and she’s less than impressed when she realises he’s about ankle height. Her skepticism does not daunt him. “I’m travel-sized for your convenience,” he assures her, then goes on about his awesome powers. When that fails, he starts howling about dishonour and she hurries to shut him up.
His first advice is on how to walk like a man. It’s terrible advice. Mulan totters into camp and, following a whispered masculinity crash course, proceeds to start a massive brawl. Her commanding officer, the devastatingly gorgeous Captain Shang – son of General Shang – takes one look at the tangle of recruits he’s expected to lead and starts plotting a sadistic training program on the spot. He rightly rests most of the blame on Mulan. As she didn’t consider the need for a male name, she stammers wildly at him before producing one. Thus Ping signs into the imperial army.
Shang’s first act of training is to fire an arrow to the top of a smooth wooden pole and challenge his recruits to retrieve it – the catch being, they have to climb while wearing weights on their wrists. No one succeeds. The following days are a haze of sticks, stones and running. Such a lot of running. Also, Shang does most of this shirtless, showing off his amazing abs and making everyone feel inadequate.
With the rest of the recruits still bearing grudges after the brawl, her own inexperience a constant burden and Mushu’s efforts to help only making things worse, Mulan is actually told to go home. It’s perfect…except it’s not, because she wants to succeed. Figuring out how to wrap the weights around the pole, she retrieves the arrow and earn a second chance. This leads to a rather improbable montage of everyone becoming lethal fighters. Mulan manages to punch Shang on the jaw, making him smile approvingly. The others are warming up to her too, after the display with the arrow, but her life is still one of constant risk. Washing in the river one night, Mulan’s evening is gatecrashed by a trio of fellow recruits wanting a swim. Having chosen the most inconvenient moment possible, they introduce themselves: the thin, chatty one is Ling, the calm giant is Chien-Po and the sarcastic bruiser is Yao. There’s way too much nudity for Mulan’s comfort level and Mushu stages a distraction so she can escape.
On the way back to her tent, she overhears Shang arguing with the imperial official who has been reporting (unfavourably) on their progress. Shang thinks they’re ready to join his father in the mountains; the official disagrees. Dismayed at the thought Mulan won’t prove herself in battle – thereby proving him to the other ancestors – Mushu commandeers a panda, turns a suit of armour into a complicated sort of marionette and pretends to be an imperial messenger so that the official’s hand is forced and the troops are sent out to war.
Cue another montage as they tramp through the countryside, distracting from themselves from their sore feet by dreaming about the girls they plan to marry when they get home. While they don’t say anything really dreadful, it’s awkward for Mulan, who cannot call out anyone on their unrealistic expectations. There’s also several clichés in this section that make it a bit wince-worthy to watch.
Then they reach the mountain pass where General Shang was stationed with his men and it’s wincing of an entirely different sort, because the village is a burnt ruin. Searching for survivors, they stumble across a battlefield littered with imperial soldiers, all dead. Shang is devastated to realise his father fell with them. He makes the only memorial he can, thrusting his sword into the snow and placing his father’s helmet reverentially atop it. Mulan silently lays an abandoned ragdoll beneath it, a tribute to all the innocents who died in this place.
There is no more time for grieving. The Huns are moving onward to the imperial city and Shang’s recruits are the only force standing in their way. As they continue through the pass, the Huns ambush them in a hail of arrows. Shang attempts to launch a counter-assault with his cannons, but the Huns have chosen their position too well. Realising this, Mulan aims her cannon at an outcrop of mountain instead, triggering a landslide.
Good news: the Huns get buried in snow! Bad news: Mulan and Shang do too. She does her best to hold his unconscious body aloft and her friends spot her, throwing a rope to haul them to safety. When he wakes up, Shang is exasperated but impressed at the same time, assuring her of his unequivocal trust. She smiles vaguely and collapses.
As her injury is treated, her true identity is revealed. The bureaucratic official wants her executed, her friends want to protect her, and Shang compromises by leaving her behind as the troops move on. Unequivocal trust doesn’t get you so far these days.
Mulan goes well past misery into the icy calm of self-loathing while Mushu mourns lost opportunities and confesses his own deception. There’s nothing to do now but go home. Whatever happens, Mushu promises they’ll do it together.
What actually happens is a sudden resurgence of Huns as the apparently indestructable invaders break through the snow. Mulan takes her life in her hands to go warn the army. They are in the middle of a celebratory parade and not particularly inclined to listen. Shang is having trust issues; Mulan has no patience for it. “You said you’d trust Ping,” she reminds him. “Why is Mulan any different?” He can’t answer that.
Shang meets the Emperor on the steps of the imperial palace, offering up the sword of Shan Yu as a symbol of their victory. The Emperor tells him his father, the general, would have been proud. Except no, not really, because Shan Yu has not been defeated at all – he’s lying in wait on a nearby rooftop. In a frankly ridiculous reveal, the dancing dragon from the parade is peopled with his soldiers, who promptly take the Emperor captive and hustle him inside the palace. Shang is dashed to the ground in the first attack and the huge palace doors are clamped shut against his frantic pursuit.
Together with Ling, Yiao and Chien-Po, he’s trying to batter down the door with a repurposed statue when Mulan interrupts them with a better idea. Shang doesn’t get much choice in accepting since his men dash off after her straight away. Dressing up her friends as imperial concubines (only Shang gets to keep his armour), Mulan teaches them her climbing trick and they scale the columns at the side of the palace.
The Emperor, meanwhile, is being terrorised by Shan Yu who wants his complete capitulation and isn’t getting it. This is happening on a balcony so that everyone gathered in the square below can see; the stairs are heavily guarded but the Huns hesitate when approached by a trio of rather thuggish concubines, giving Mulan’s friends the chance to take their enemies apart. It’s a distraction to allow Shang access to the balcony. Just in time, too. As Shan Yu swings his blade towards the Emperor’s head, Shang blocks it; Chien-Po bodily lifts the Emperor and swings down on a rope into the square, followed by Ling and Yao, but then Shan Yu gets the better of Shang and Mulan cuts the rope rather than allow him the same route down.
He turns on her, and recognises her as the soldier from the mountain. When he pursues her onto the rooftops in a frothing rage, Mulan uses her fan as an unexpected shield and Mushu sets off a firework – trapped between them, Shan Yu is blown off the roof in a shower of pretty death sparks. Mulan leaps down and crashes straight into Shang. Together with her friends, he shields her when the angry official comes stalking over to be loudly chauvinistic, and Shang gets loudly defensive. The schoolyard scrap is broken up when the Emperor strides out of the smoke in that impressive way only lifetime royals can achieve. He reels off Mulan’s crimes, gesturing pointedly at the burning roof where Shan Yu was just fireworked, while Mulan’s friends make awkward faces in the background.
“AND,” the Emperor concludes, “…you have saved us all.” He smiles and bows. Everyone else follows suit. It’s a bit overboard, but sweet too. The Emperor wants Mulan to become a counsellor; she politely refuses, saying she just wants to go home. He gifts her with an imperial seal and Shan Yu’s sword as symbols of her victory, and Mulan trips over a dozen protocols to give him a huge hug. She, in turn, gets wildly enthusiastic hugs from her friends and an uncertain pat on the shoulder from Shang. The Emperor, who plays matchmaker when he’s not ruling vast empires or sarking at kidnappers, gives Shang a pointed shove in her general direction.
Mulan has finally started figuring out who she is. She’s just not sure her family will accept it. She kneels at her father’s feet, hastily showing him her trophies, hoping to at least delay his anger. He throws them aside to pull her into his arms, just grateful to have her safe. Presumably she saw the rest of the family first because they are calmly watching from the sidelines; her grandmother eyes the sword critically, remarking that Mulan should have brought home a boyfriend instead, and at that precise moment imperial pin-up Shang arrives looking for Mulan. He proceeds to stumble through a terribly obvious excuse for his presence until Mulan, grinning, asks him to stay for dinner.
The ancestors admit Mushu did a pretty decent job and reinstate him as a guardian. It’s a good excuse for a great party.
Spot the Difference: The version of the ballad I read was very simple, therefore it’s hard to draw comparisons. The time scale is the most obvious difference – the Mulan of the ballad serves over a decade in the army and doesn’t reveal her identity as a woman until she gets home. She also has a larger family and no smart-mouthed dragon giving her advice, which might explain the longevity of her deception.
The thing I love best about this movie is, even though it is about Mulan carving out a place in a traditionally male sphere, she has fantastic relationships with her mother and grandmother, and they in turn have a marvellous rapport with each other. Until this point there had been incredibly few mothers in Disney fairy tales, let alone grandmothers. Mulan may not feel comfortable in her own skin through most of the story, but it is shown time and time again that her family love and support her in every way they can. Even the dead ones (considerably more judgmental than the living) have her back.
Mulan’s male friends have rather less nuance. Why would they need it? Their expectations of the world, up until they meet Mulan, have never been challenged – but once they do realise who Mulan really is, they back her up, even when her plan is basically ‘put on dresses and hope the guards here are really stupid’. They trust her judgement. There’s a strong romantic element to Mulan’s relationship with Shang, of course, but she wants his respect more than his affection and at the end he chooses to come find her, in full knowledge of the person she really is.
The story is quite a tangle from an adult’s perspective, bringing up issues of gender norms and toxic masculinity as well as issues of cultural translation. The representation of China is…well, really clumsy in parts, and rather clichéd, but doesn’t seem actually offensive. I’m certainly not in a position to say for sure and if anyone has a different perspective on that, please talk to me about it in the comments.
There’s some concerning censure about Mulan being a ‘cross-dresser’ with a ‘drag show’ – the terms are not inherent criticisms but the way they’re said makes it clear these are negative descriptions and that’s deeply unhelpful. Fortunately, both instances of cross-dressing end up being treated with immense positivity by the narrative. Hyper-masculine attitudes are gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocked, while the heavy policing of femininity is refuted at every step.
I don’t think Mulan has really decided who she is even at the end of the movie – but she’s not ashamed of that uncertainty any more. She knows she’s respected, and trusted, and loved.
Plus, she knows now that she is excellent with explosives. That’s an important life skill.