Hua Mulan, of perhaps the Sui dynasty (581-618 C. E.), was famous for serving years in the Imperial Army and may or may not have later died in battle. Mulan has been depicted in varied guises over the centuries, virtually ever-present in the Chinese cultural discourse involving the proper roles of women. She is almost always mentioned when someone wishes to defend the role of women in China, and presented as an example for women in difficult times. Possibly the most famous heroine of China, Mulan is the central figure of traditional accounts from ballads, to plays, to a long novel from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 C. E.), to modern children's books.

The various tales have a few constant elements. Mulan's family lives in a time of war. The Imperial Army is carrying out instructions to recruit the men from each household, but Mulan's family has only her aging father. To save him from conscription, she puts on men's clothing and joins the army herself. She gets away with her disguise, although it would have been a capital offense at the time. In her several years in the army, she acquits herself so well and so honorably that she is offered an official position. Later, her former comrades-in-arms come to her home and are shocked at the revelation that she is a young woman. Various versions include further detail, such as her parents begging her not to leave. In some versions her father challenges her to a duel, and to his shock she bests him with and without a sword. Variants describe Mulan's cleverness in battle, death in combat, or even marriage to a high official, none of which appear in the early ballads. However, almost all depictions of Mulan celebrate general attributes such as martial fierceness, tactical intelligence, filial piety, and natural beauty.


Mulan
Disney Animated Feature, 1998


Characters

  • Mulan:
    the high-spirited daughter of a former soldier, Mulan tries hard to please her parents but often feels she is letting them down. Independent and creative, Mulan doesn’t fit the traditional role for a female in her society. When her aging father is drafted into the army, Mulan decided to take his place and save his life by dressing as a boy.
    • Voice of Mulan: Ming-NaWen
    • Singing voice of Mulan: Lea Salonga
    • Animated by: Mark Henn (same guy who animated Belle and Jasmine)

  • Mushu:
    Mushu was once a guardian of the Fa family, but has been demoted to gong-ringer and incense burner after leading one of his relatives to disaster. Mushu is determined to gain his old status, so he decided to watch over Mulan on her adventure in hopes of making her a hero.

  • Shan Yu:
    a former soldier of the Chinese army, Shan Yu has joined forced with the Huns. Brutal and calculating, he wants to challenge the power of the emperor after the building of The Great Wall.
    • Voice:: Miguel Ferrer
    • Animated by: Pres Rumanillos

  • Lee Shang:
    Shang is the son of a great general, and a captain in the Chinese Army. His job is to train the inexperienced new recruits; a group that included Mulan and several other interesting characters.

  • The Emperor:
    Loved and revered by his people, the Emperor is concerned with the threat of attack from the Huns and Shan Yu. He orders a draft of one man from every family to help defend his country. As he said, “A single grain of rice may tip the scales; one man may be the difference between victory and defeat.”

  • Cri-kee:
    Cri-kee is a lucky cricket found by Mulan’s grandmother, who allies himself with Mushu and comes along when Mulan decided to "take her little drag show on the road.”
    • Animated by: Billy Temple (same guy who animated Lumiere and the Sultan)

  • Khan:
    Mulan’s strong black stallion who posses the power to understand every word said by both Mushu and Mulan. He is the victim of one of her shoe throwing fits.
    • Animated by:Alex Kupershmidt (He also animated the hyenas from The Lion King)

  • Fa Li and Fa Zhou:
    Mulan’s parents, who love her very much (also, this is one of the few Disney movies where both parents of the main character are present). Fa Li wants Mulan to carry on the family’s honor and tradition. Fa Zhou was a great warrior in his younger days, but now relies on a cane to walk.
    • Voices: Freda Foh Shen and Soon-Tech Oh, respectively
    • Animated by: Joe Haidar

  • Yao, Ling, and Chien Po:
    These three are Mulan’s close friends after she wins their affection during training. Yao is short and stout with a permanent black eye; Ling is the tall, shapeless ladies man; Chien Po is a gentle giant who is the peacekeeper to his friends.
    • Voices: Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, and Jerry Tondo (respectively)
    • Animators: Broose Johnson and Aaron Blaise

  • Grandmother Fa:
    Fa Zhou’s mother has a sense of humor the belies her age; she and Mulan are “kindred spirits.”

  • Other Supporting Characters:



Music from Disney’s Mulan

There are several songs from Mulan, most following the traditional corny Disney format -- some are better than others, to put it mildly.
Disney Animated Features
<< Hercules | Tarzan >>

Release Date: 6 June 1998

As I mentioned in my Hercules writeup, Disney was going to start doing some different things after that film. Nothing serious, at least not yet, but with Mulan, they tried adjusting the mix of the formula that was (if you believe the box office receipts) beginning to grow a little stale. The Disney Animated Features were still quite successful financially, of course, but not as much so as The Lion King or Aladdin had been.

The changes for Mulan were subtle but clear. First, there were fewer songs, which prevented this fairly fast-paced movie from dragging too much. Also, the focus was not on a romance of any sort, but rather on the action, adventure, comedy, and characterization of the heroine.

Mulan was probably a real person, but her story has been so mythologized in China that no definitive version of it exists. Thus it was well-suited for adaptation by Disney, particularly as their main audience was completely unfamiliar with it.

In the Disney version, Fa Mulan is a young, intelligent, independent Chinese maiden who, after a disasterous evaluation by the local matchmaker, begins to think she'll never fit in. "When will my reflection show," she asks, "who I am inside?" In typical Disney heroine fashion, she's discontent with what tradition says her life should be and wants more.

Her father, decorated war veteran Fa Zhou, is suprisingly supportive of her, and although he worries that she won't find a husband, he knows that his daughter must find her way in her own time.

Fate forces her hand, though, as the Huns invade China from the north. The Emperor conscripts one man from each family in China to join the army. But Mulan has no brothers or uncles, leaving her ailing father (an old war injury) to accept the duty. Mulan is furious; she sneaks out in the middle of the night, after cutting her hair and taking her father's armor and sword, to join the army as Fa Ping, her fictional brother.

The Fa family ancestors fear she will bring disgrace on the family by impersonating a man, and through an unfortunate accident, the dragon sent to stop her is the diminuitive and disgraced Mushu. Mulan convinces Mushu to let her continue, and she joins the army. She then must keep her secret and earn the respect of the other soldiers, all while dealing with the invading Huns...

The Mulan of this film is a fairly typical Disney heroine, if a bit younger. She's smart, independent, and she refuses to bow to tradition, no matter what. The difference here is that the Mulan of legend was the same way, and the story requires it of her; previous Disney heroines were generally written that way as a change from the source material (if any). Also a change is that Mulan is driven not by romance but by honor; the little romantic content in the film is an afterthought (due perhaps to Mulan's age).

The animation used to bring this wonderful tale to life is beautiful. Of particular note are the opening shots of the Great Wall of China, the cherry blossoms in the Fa backyard, and the scenes of the Forbidden City itself. Most outstanding, however, is a shot of hundreds of Huns on horseback, charging down a snow-covered slope. Although the scene was created with the help of computers (much like the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, but better), the assistance is invisible to the viewer and produces an awe-inspriring effect.

David Zippel, the lyricist for Hercules, is back for Mulan, but not Alan Menken. Instead, Zippel is joined by another virtual unknown, Matthew Wilder (known only for his single hit, "Break My Stride", which he wrote and performed in 1983) as composer of Mulan's songs. On the other hand, the scoring work (previously also Menken's job) was taken over by veteran movie composer Jerry Goldsmith.

The songs themselves are mostly forgettable and fairly pedestrian -- nothing that's gonna be hummed incessantly after leaving the theater. But there are a few good moments. "I'll Make a Man Out of You" shows the efforts of Captain Li Shang to whip the new recruits into shape. He despairs of ever doing so until Mulan (in her guise as Ping) learns that wits are as important as strength. The irony of the title being applied to Mulan is not ignored. Part of the song is reprised later, when three of Mulan's tough-guy buddies dress up as concubines; they reveal their painted faces as the music begins: "Be a man!" Also notable is "A Girl Worth Fighting For," not for the music itself, but for the way this comedic, light-hearted song ends, abruptly, just before the last note -- the music interrupted as Captain Li's squad comes across the quiet desolation of a recent battlefield.

Disney gained some rare compliments from its critics for hiring an almost entirely Asian cast for this film -- and they aren't unknowns, either. Actress Ming-Na (then Ming-Na Wen) leads the cast as Mulan (and Broadway actress Lea Salonga provides her singing voice, as she did for Jasmine). B. D. Wong, now Dr. Huang on Law & Order : Special Victims Unit, voiced Captain Li (with Donny Osmond singing). Famous comedian Eddie Murphy pulls a Robin Williams as the wise-cracking, jive-talking Mushu. His voice and mannerisms are completely anachronistic, but they work (amazingly), and he makes the character extremely funny (at times).

I'm not done yet! Voiceover actor Miguel Ferrer, the son of Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer, voiced the evil Hun leader Shan-Yu. Pat Morita, best known as Arnold on Happy Days and Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid movies, lends dignity to the role of the Emperor. Hikaru Sulu himself, George Takei, voiced the First Ancestor of the Fa family. Gedde Watanabe, best known as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, voices one of Mulan's fellow soldiers. Also on hand is veteran voice actress June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Grammi Gummi, Looney Tunes' Granny, etc.) as Grandmother Fa.

The film's score was nominated for an Academy Award, and for once, I'd argue the loss (to Shakespeare in Love) was deserved, despite the presence of Jerry Goldsmith. The music isn't bad, but it's not the film's strong point. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible for animated films to compete in most Oscar categories. On the other hand, the film cleaned house at the Annie Awards, proving that Disney was still on top when it came to animated features -- but then, its only real competition that year was 1997's Anastasia.

Mulan is scheduled to get a direct-to-video sequel in 2003, but information on it is, as yet, scarce. None of the possibilities seem appealing, but we'll see.

Mulan is a fine action/adventure/comedy film, and although it had all of the elements of Disney's recent successful formula, it changed the mix, emphasizing the action and character development rather than music and romance. It clearly laid the groundwork for the big changes exhibited by Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and so could mark the beginning of the second phase of Disney's revitalization of its animated features.

Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.

ONCE UPON A TIME: Mulan and the Disney Equation

No matter how many films Disney produces, someone always makes the mistake of thinking that the intent was to achieve authenticity. In a review by an audience member on imdb.com, the character of Mulan was criticized for having exaggerated eyes and the flattest chest in Disney history. The reviewer goes on to comment that she is Asian, and thus her sensitivity to the stereotypes she perceived in the basic nature of the film. Unfortunately, the reviewer has missed not only the point, but a series of much more glaring inconsistencies and stereotypes. In this context, her final comment that she will ''go off and watch some anime'' is patently absurd. Mulan is not meant to be accurate, it is meant to be iconographic. The Chinese setting is window dressing, the original poem merely the kernel of an idea. The ideals embraced by the film are those of a very modern American sensibility that the Disney weathervane has pointed to in the last dozen years.

Someday My Prince Will Come - The New Disney

Disney attempts to satisfy the very young while conforming to what will be acceptable to a majority of adults. Because of this, and because of changes in the ways Americans conceive of what it means to be young in America, there have been four major thematic changes which create the new paradigm. The first two are linked; an inner conflict, and its outward expression in being ''true to yourself'' or ''following your heart.'' Third, there is the inheritance theme, where the hero/heroine assumes the role and duties of the parent. Fourth, there has been a consistent move towards friendship, and the idea that no one can succeed alone.

Conflict
The Little Mermaid1, was an attempt to return to the fairy tale/human character motif that had brought the phenomenal successes of such films as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Like those stories, the primary action is in the search and rescue mission of finding true love. However, The Little Mermaid, and each film after it, diverges from the older model. In the older films, while the identities of the heroines and heroes have been obscured at times, their psychological states have always been untroubled. This is very different in the contemporary films. The contemporary Disney paradigm possesses a main character who does not fit into his/her place in society. Even in The Little Mermaid, which was a transition film marked with nostalgia, the main character faces a crisis of identity or purpose. Unlike the older films where conflict is strictly imposed by a malicious villain, in these later films it is the existence of an inner discord which inevitably causes the hero/heroine to invite the external conflict. Mulan is a young woman who is intelligent, outspoken, and physically exuberant. Her conventional destiny is to become a demure, silent, deferential wife and mother. Her well intentioned attempt at conforming is not only a disaster, but it reveals to her the depth of her unhappiness with the role. Her next attempt to fit within a rigid pattern that ''should'' bring her happiness, but does not, places her in very real physical danger by the villain of the film and by her own transgression of tradition. This psychic tension in the main character is one reflection of a contemporary opinion of children, especially of American teenagers. The films are no longer simple morality plays where good overcomes evil by virtue of being good. It is as important in the later films for the characters to overcome inner ambivalence.

The primary symbol of Mulan's hidden self is her reflection. Mulan is full of reflected images and references to reflections. Mulan's solo is titled Reflection and dwells on her fear that she will never be able to show the world the entire person she is. Her movements during the song find reflections in every possible surface; pools of water suddenly abound, and every tablet of her ancestors in the temple shows a fragment of her image.2 When she wipes the makeup off her face, we see her reflection, half clean, half still wearing the paint. When she decides to join the army, her face is reflected in a stone tablet. When she prepares to cut her hair, she is reflected on the flat of her father's sword. Inspiration for the avalanche comes from a reflection on the flat of the sword (revealing a hidden face on a grand scale). The moment of deepest despair in the mountains, abandoned by the army, Mulan, Mushu, and even Cri-Kee confess their secrets before the power of seeing their own reflections. Then there is the other meaning of reflection, which Mulan also indulges in, the act of thoughtful consideration. Her solo is, in fact, a reflection on her reflection, as are her unhappy comments in the snow.

She has several turning points based on thoughtfulness. There is her retrieval of the arrow, which proves her potential as a soldier, wins her the respect of her fellow recruits, and marks the beginning of her professional skill. There is the moment in the burned out village when she, and indeed all her companions, suddenly realize that war is not an abstract game that wins pretty girls, but a deadly, horrifying, waste. (In fact, after A Girl Worth Fighting For, which ends abruptly at the scene of destruction, there are no new songs in the film until the end credits.) The tiny doll, similar to one she returned to a child only a month before, signifies Mulan's leap into adulthood even more than the death of the entire cavalry. There is the moment when the Huns attack when she realizes that she has the idea that can save them, if she has the courage to act. There is the moment in the snow, when no masks will fit anymore, and the reality of the Huns outweighs her personal concerns.

Mulan's choices finally lead her to happiness because she does not blindly follow her heart. Self-examination is necessary for her to know what her conflicted heart really wants. Her mistakes lead to growth because each act builds upon the previous act of reflection

Heart
The ''infallible'' heart is far from a recent or purely American construction, but it is certainly not ancient Chinese. Disney movies have come to idealize the ''infallible'' heart. The two glaring neon signs that point to this are Mulan's solo Reflection and the end credits song, True To Your Heart.3 Proof of this also exists independent of the songs. This is because being true to oneself is the action which allows for the resolution of the inner conflict which afflicts the main character, and usually the love interest. In the case of Mulan, Shang, Mushu, and even Cri-Kee all have parallel issues. Mulan must reconcile her outspoken nature with a silent future, and she wants to please her father. Shang is insecure about his promotion, and worried that he will disappoint General Li. After the General's death, the pressure he feels is even greater. Mushu wants to be reinstated in his old job as family guardian, and back into the good graces of the ancestors. Cri-Kee is never quite sure if he is lucky or not, and he seeks Mushu's approval.

Mulan is the most clear cut case. She attempts to be a bride. She not only fails miserably, but realizes that success at this point would have been worse. She attempts to be a soldier, and although it gives her more scope to be who she wants to be, she is still not free. She is still unable to be entirely herself. This is clearly laid out in the parallel Honor To Us All and Make A Man Out Of You training songs that list the superficial traits of a bride and of a man. It is not until she is discovered that she is forced to reveal the person who has formed beneath the restrictions of both masquerades. And only then is she forced to live with it as her only identity. Her reconciliation with her hard won identity allows her only to act in a way that is true to her nature, and this leads to the fulfillment of her potential and the acquisition of happiness. In the true Disney romantic tradition, this also means that she succeeds in her first endeavor and finds a husband.

Inheritance
The tension in Disney inheritance exists in the higher quality control imposed upon the child. The child must shed all flaws to reach a satisfactory resolution, and this is proved by the failure of the parent. This can be seen in Mulan's ability to combine intelligence with the bodily strength which Fa Zhou lost when he was injured in the last war. Mulan comes through this war without serious or permanent injury. There is also the parallel story of Li Shang and General Li. Since love interests have to live up to main characters, they are becoming complex as well. Thus Li Shang has a parallel inheritance problem. Li Shang must lead the remnants of the army to victory against the Huns, where his father and crack mounted troops failed. This is not to say that the parents are bumbling or stupid. In fact, they are worthy of great respect and thus the inherited role is difficult fulfill. Only outperforming the excellent parent, approaching perfection, will guarantee a happy ending.

Mulan may appear to defy the inheritance pattern, as on the surface it seems to claim that old values and traditions need to be discarded wholesale, but this surface reading is not accurate. The person Mulan loves the most is Fa Zhou, her father. The relationship between father and daughter is clearly a special one. Mulan's prayers during the matchmaker scene are a simple wish not to make a fool of herself and a desire that her ancestors keep her father well. Although her family is quite large by Disney standards, both of her parents are alive as well as her paternal grandmother, she is consoled for her failure at the matchmaker's by her father and she seeks out her father for the tender reunion at the end.

It is also Mulan's father who reminds her that her place is that of a woman, and circumscribed with rules and prohibitions, just as he is in the role of a man and a soldier. Mulan is a living reflection of Fa Zhou. He is a soldier, with a soldier's values who excels at being a husband and father. He is forced to return to the soldier's work he is no longer capable of performing, yet feels drawn to by his idealism. She is a young woman who can not bear to be forced into the mold of wife to a man, and mother to children, who would likely never allow her energy and intelligence freedom or equality. Upon entering the army and struggling to adjust, she excels yet cannot leave her womanhood uninvolved. Fa Zhou and Mulan are both strikingly similar and yet mirror opposites. Mulan's departure from the traditional path of demure young women places her on the path of following exactly in her father's footsteps. Fa Zhou, despite his adherence to the one tradition Mulan defies, also represents a number of virtues which Mulan heartily embraces, and embodies by the end of the film. His loyalty, valor, his sense of duty are all qualities Mulan demonstrates in her relationship with him, and eventually with others. Despite being abandoned by the army in the mountains and told to go home, she still seeks to warn Shang of the Elite Huns. Despite the risk to her own life, she cuts off Shan Yu's route to the emperor and stays to help Shang. By the end of the film, she is willing to die, not to achieve honor, but to do what is right. (That honor will be given to those who do what is right is a Disney bonus.) Taking the connection one step further, Fa Zhou can not reconcile 'warrior' with 'husband and father'. Mulan finally does so, not only by excelling as a soldier, but in adding to it the warmth of her true identity and personality.

Fa Zhou's split nature is laid out in two scenes, the consolation scene after the debacle with the matchmaker, and the conscription scene. The first finds him level with Mulan. The camera eye keeps both he and Mulan in the frame, close enough for intimacy with the audience. He is accessible as the wise and loving father, who finds it easier to speak in metaphor when telling his daughter that she is both forgiven and not a lost cause. However, in the conscription screen, the combination of action and camera movement exploits every opportunity to set Fa Zhou apart, and alone. He is frequently seen from below, giving him greater height and impact. His being seen from above in Mulan's point of view is balanced by the action of the crowd of men which parts to let him through. He is also the only man who is seen centrally, square, and full frame. His readiness to serve briefly becomes a tableau of men and horses. This tableau is then reversed at the end of the scene as he walks away, centrally framed by his gates and the house. But this final image is tense, the character of Fa Zhou now includes that of a 'bigger than life' duty-bound soldier embodied in his refusal to use his crutch, and his attempt to walk without a limp. He no longer fits without disturbance into the role of husband and father. This scene is also the first intimation that the world of men forbidden to Mulan, is not a world of freedom, but merely of different rules.

Mulan symbolically integrates her 'soldier' nature with her 'home' nature in the climactic rescue scene. The episode with her fan is much more subtle and suggestive than the episode involving three soldiers dressed as women to take the guards by surprise. Mulan's fans bookend the film. Her first failure involves a fan, during the disastrous interview with the despotic matchmaker. Her final victory involves a fan. This return to a prop of her curtailed role does not suggest a return to an oppressive tradition. Mulan now defines the purpose of the prop instead of the props defining her identity. She no longer lives a life where the trappings of fan and jewels create a bride, or a layer of sword and armor create a soldier. Unlike Fa Zhou, her dual nature of warrior and bride complement, rather than conflict.

Friendship
Friendship has always been an integral part of Disney films. It is the main premise behind the incredibly irritating ''It's A Small World'' ride. Nonetheless, modernization has struck here as well. Before, rescues were effected by individuals, however many friends the rescuer or his object may have. The new films have moved consistently towards celebrating group effort over impossible solo virtuosity. The climax of Mulan typifies this. She does not enter the city to take on Shan Yu single handedly. Mulan knows she can not succeed alone.

MUSHU
Now where are you going?

MULAN
To find someone who will believe me.

Previous experience within the film also supports this. Unassisted, she would have died falling over the cliff. Alone, she can not save the Emperor. While Mulan is the initiator of much of the action, there is no question that she can not do all the necessary tasks herself. Compared to this, a wall of thorns and a disgruntled dragon are minor inconveniences.

In the end, Mulan is the savior of China, not because she can outfight Shan Yu, but because she is the catalyst that makes his destruction possible. Another aspect of this returns to the idea of inheritance. Mulan has succeeded where her father failed. Part of this is because Mulan has help. In the conscription scene, which is the closest Fa Zhou comes to his soldier role during the film, he is painfully alone. He turns away from the help of his crutch, his wife, and his daughter. He is respected and other men step aside with respect, but there is no community of friends to ease the isolation of the draft. Fa Zhou would have gone to war and died alone among a thousand soldiers.

Toto, I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore - Historical Background - Ancient China Meets Modern Day Disney

Disney has taken all the usual liberties in its depiction of ancient China. The exquisite care with which the details are created is paired with outlandish errors of fact. Some of the liberties are clearly Disney 'abbreviations,' ways of making the story fit within the required time frame and Disney cookie cutter. Some of the errors are made in the attempt to pack as many recognizably 'Chinese' elements into the film as possible. Some are in-jokes and some are perhaps just ignorance. A detailed list of bloopers, gaffs, and in-jokes is at the end of this writeup.

First, a little ancient history. Most of China's history is punctuated with Mongols attacking the northern borders and trying to take over territory. The first emperor of China lived in 2698 BC. The emperor who founded the Ching Dynasty, united China, standardized the writing system, and initiated the building of the Great Wall, began his rule in 221 BC. Beijing did not become the capitol of China until the Mongols conquered the country in 1280 AD. It was the first Mongol ruler of China who began construction of the Forbidden City. In 1368 AD the Ming Dynasty overthrew the Mongol emperor and moved the capital to Nanjing, in southwestern China. The capital did not return to Beijing and the Forbidden City until the Manchurians and the Ching Dynasty in 1644, and it remained there until 1912. Using the Forbidden City in the film as the capital is clearly a major anachronism. However, it is one of a handful of instantly recognizable Chinese landmarks.

In the Disney version of Chinese history, the Mongols are referred to as Huns. These Huns are demonized with glowing yellow eyes and gray skin. Their leader, Shàn Yŭ (which is not a proper name but a Chinese term signifying the Mongol ruler) has pointed nails and sharp canine teeth. These barbarians are huge and hulking, wearing dull leather and furs or only partially clothed, bearing curved swords, and possessed of an unnaturally keen sense of smell and inhuman strength. They lack mercy, and delight in mayhem and destruction. Even their horses are heavily built, dark gray, have glowing red eyes, and pointed teeth. The barbarian invaders are contrasted to the mounted contingent of the emperor's army. Wearing matched armor and bearing the gold and red banners of the emperor, they ride tall white horses with small heads and slender legs. The mass of the both armies are destroyed, leaving the elite Huns and the core of Mulan's friends to face off at the end. This horrifying depiction of the Mongol invaders is actually fairly consistent with contemporary Chinese renderings of the alien barbarians.

Needless to say, Disney's version of Mulan is about as accurate to the original as its version of Beauty and the Beast. With reference to literary facts, Mulan has an older sister and a younger brother in the 5th Century poem. The brother is not old enough to go to war, which leads to the masquerade. Also in the poem, Mulan maintains her secret for twelve years, and only reveals herself after she returns home. Since the Emperor offers her a cabinet position before that, he was unaware that she is a woman at the time. A large body of apocryphal stories has grown up around the original poem, which include Mulan falling in love with a fellow soldier. One story linked to Fa Mulan claims that, when the Emperor discovered Mulan was a woman, he wanted her for a concubine, and she committed suicide rather than become one.

The poem, even without the drama of suicide, seems to be strongly in favor of equal rights for, or at least equal abilities in, women. The line which seems to suggest this most strongly is the last line about not being able tell male and female rabbits apart when they are running in the field.4

I'm Not Dead Yet! - Conclusion

Mulan is not an authentically retold Chinese story because Disney does not need it to be. The film has been too carefully crafted for the majority of errors to be from ignorance. What we have is the phone book version of Chinese history, gloriously drawn. Familiar names make people laugh, make them comfortable with the funny names. What Disney does is to clothe the skeleton of an interesting plot with the flesh of modern crises of identity and growth, and relevant to its own target audiences.

How do children deal with death, and birth, and love, and betrayal... especially betrayal? How do they find out who they are, and what they want, and what they should be? Will 8 hours of TV a day teach them bad values, good values, or just mess with their eyesight? And what happens if they aren't well socialized, if they don't play well with others, or if they are painfully shy? What do we do with them?

It has been a long time since people have thought that children get a magic bullet of 'adulthood' around the age of 20. It has become commonplace to refer to the emotional hardships of childhood, as well as the joys. Disney has tapped into this awareness, and is training viewers with each new film. Some people will always prefer the old stories, but for many, perfection is no longer enough. Audiences are now willing to see even animated characters sweat for their achievements.


1 1989 - The Little Mermaid
1992 - Aladdin
1994 - The Lion King (I have avoided the 'animal' films, although this one is very much a 'human' film masquerading as an 'animal' film. It is known amongst some of my friends as ''Hamlet of the Serengeti'')
1995 - Pocahontas (other animated features released this year: The Goofy Movie, Toy Story by Pixar)
1996 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame (other animated features released this year: James and the Giant Peach directed by Henry Selick)
1997 - Hercules
1998 - Mulan, (other animated features released this year: A Bug's Life by Pixar)
1999 - Tarzan (other animated features released this year: Doug's First Movie based on the TV cartoon, Fantasia 2000, and Toy Story 2 by Pixar)
2000 - (other animated features released this year: The Tigger Movie)
2 Reflection: lyrics and scene description
MULAN (sees her reflection in the water as she waters Khan. She takes off the jewelry)
Look at me
I will never pass for a perfect bride
(sees Fa Li and Fa Zhou standing together, unhappy)
Or a perfect daughter
Can it be (standing in the circle doorway in the wall between the courtyard and the garden, she lets Cri-Kee go)
I'm not meant to play this part?
Now I see
That if I were truly (hops on the raised railing of the bridge)
To be myself
I would break my family's heart
(looks at her reflection in the fish pond, then leans against the Great Stone Dragon, with her back to the camera, and her back reflected in the pool. Cri-Kee gondolas up to her on a lily pad.)
Who is that girl I see
Staring straight
Back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don't know?
(She enters the temple and every tablet with her ancestors deeds reflects her make up covered face or some part of her. She kowtows to the central tablet.)
Somehow I cannot hide
Who I am
Though I've tried
(She stares at her reflection in the central tablet. Then wipes off her make up on one side of her face with her sleeve.)
When will my reflection show
(She wipes off the rest of her makeup.)
Who I am inside?
(Turns and sees 8 reflections of herself in the various tablets, reaches up and takes out the flower comb and takes down her hair. She turns to face the camera, so her reflection shows her turned back.)
When will my reflection show
(She gets up, still reflected, and exits the temple, brushing some of the lower tablets with her hand.)
Who I am inside?
3 True to Your Heart lyrics (partial):
Whenever you feel your world is crashing down on you
Whenever you don't know where to turn or what to do
Don't look too far, you've got the guide
To find your way, let your heart decide!

CHORUS
True to your heart!
You must be true to your heart!
That's when the heavens will part,
And show the world what you believe in!
Open your eyes.
Your heart can tell you no lies!
And when you're true to your heart,
Then you've got all you need to make it through
(Got to be true to your heart!)
4 Although there is a translation here, I prefer the more literal translation rendered by my father and I. Here are the last two lines, which in the context of the poem are spoken by the character of Mulan herself (thus the quotation marks):
''When resting, the male hare's feet are twitching. | | The female hare's eyes are dreaming.
When running together in the field, | | Who can tell them apart?''

It may look good, but it ain't all right: Goofs, gaffs, and jokes

  • The Great Wall is apparently complete. It took generations to finish the thing.
  • The capitol is in Beijing, in the Forbidden City. Completely anachronistic, and they are located too far north.
  • The general goes onto one knee and bows to the emperor in his throne room. The way he bows is a western style. He should kowtow like they do at the end of the film.
  • The counselor's name is Chi Fu, which can mean ''to tease or pester,'' which he proceeds to do to everyone throughout the film.
  • The primary duty of women was to marry and bear sons. Daughters left their families upon marriage and became the husband's family's 'property.' Thus, the best way to be a good daughter was to make an advantageous (via bride price) marriage and have many strong sons to forward the outward potential of the family. Interestingly enough, in the film Mulan's mother has no sons, and the relationship of father and mother appears to be one of love, which was not considered in arranged marriages. So purely in the context established by the film, what does this say of Mulan's mother? Has she failed as a woman? The concept of romance and love is highly developed in Chinese literature, however, Fa Li is insufficiently developed to know if she fits any of the patterns. I believe that she is meant to simply be a fairly generic loving mother and this dilemma is part of the dissonance between the plot of the film and the ethos of the storytellers.
  • There was no law declaring that women found masquerading as soldiers and fighting alongside men were to be executed. Why make a law for something so unlikely to happen?
  • Mulan writes crib notes on her right arm with her left hand. It was forbidden to write with the left hand.
  • The characters on the scroll she copies from contain several in simplified script, which is a modern mainland development.
  • The scroll she copies from is made from flat pieces of bamboo that are tied together with string, this is accurate for the time period, but the writing is going in the wrong direction (perpendicular to the bamboo slats, not parallel).
  • Chinese ink is indelible, it would not run or wash off her arm if she had used it.
  • ''Reflect before you snack... act!'' Always a problem in translation, eat and act are very different in Chinese characters, much more so than snack and act.
  • Mulan's mother's name is Fa Li. Women keep their maiden names for full name use, and only use their husbands names when referred to as ''Mrs.''
  • Crickets are not for good luck. They are collected for the very manly sport of cricket fighting.
  • Women never showed their neck or collarbone area, it was considered risqué.
  • The presence of ancestor tablets in the temple pagoda is correct. They are not headstones, but carvings of praise for the dead. The calligraphy on these stones is of a very ancient type, accurate for 5th or 6th century. So is the calligraphy on the map in the general's tent. The meaning of the calligraphy is not so authentic. They are apparently transliterations of the animators' names.
  • Chickens were not fed grain feed but kitchen scraps.
  • Mushu is a food term culled from restaurant menus. It refers to shredded meat or vegetables cooked with scrambled eggs, most often eaten as a filling for Chinese 'pancakes.'
  • In Chinese mythology, dragons are huge and wise. They live at the bottom of the ocean in great palaces, and fly in the clouds to bring rain. They can take human form, and are benevolent. They are also water elementals, not fire breathers. Fire breathing dragons are an entirely western creation.
  • One of the words on the newspaper Mushu reads is 北京, as if it is a Beijing paper.
  • Cri-Kee is a made up name.
  • Chien Po, the large, bald soldier, calms Yao down with a Buddhist chant, although both he and Yao make one part sound like tofu. Buddhists are nonviolent and generally vegetarians, and while he looks like a prosperity Buddha, Chien Po is not a vegetarian, etc..
  • One never uses chopsticks for anything but eating or cooking. There is strict etiquette about chopstick use. However, nothing would demonstrate the complete lack of manners better than having a character clean his toes with his chopsticks.
  • Mulan takes Ping as her boy's name. Put together Fa Ping can mean Flower Vase. Ping can mean bottle or vase, but it also can mean calm, flat, or level. It can also be used as a verb; to level or calm. This may be a single layer pun or a multiple layer pun. She is a beautiful girl who brings peace to China, and for herself at least, creates equality between herself and the men of the army.
  • Mushu gives Mulan a breakfast of rice gruel, two sunny side up eggs, and a slice of bacon. The eggs and bacon are a classic western breakfast, not Chinese. It would be a wealthy army indeed that could afford not only to import rice to the north (which eats wheat), but to feed everyone meat and eggs for breakfast, let alone sunny side up.
  • The scene where the recruits learn to use bows and arrows, they shoot at pomegranates instead of apples. Pomegranates are not cheap anywhere, but I grew up with many people who called them Chinese Apples. They are a warm weather crop.
  • While marching through the mountains, the soldiers pass women planting rice in paddies. It is spring and the proper time for planting, but rice is a warm weather crop and is not grown in Northern China.
  • The soldiers train to carry a heavy load slung on both ends of a long bamboo pole over both their shoulders. The proper way is to carry the pole on one shoulder, switching shoulders when necessary.
  • The painting that spoofs a souvenir photograph is signed in the bottom right hand corner. The text at the top left hand corner and the red seal imprint are correct, but the red seal is what should be considered the signature. Any text on a painting would be a poetic verse or some other commemorative statement. An autograph would be in the form of an inked seal or ''chop'', not a hand written character. Incidentally, famous paintings often displayed several chop marks by emperors and other eminent people. This was their 'seal of approval' for the work.
  • The characters that Cri-Kee ''types'' in the fake letter from the general are in modern lettering and are the names of random foods from menus.
  • The panda that they use as a horse is adorable, but it is not a Northern Chinese animal. They live in Sichuan province.
  • The drawing of the dream girl has modern lettering that says ''dream girl.''
  • Dumplings are not trail food, they are eaten at New Year's Eve, Day, birthdays, and special occasions. They are full of meat, and the noodles are sticky. They are highly perishable and too expensive for army food.
  • Public hugging and touching were not done. Especially between the sexes. A woman would not walk up to a man and touch his shoulder, or hug the emperor no matter how exuberant.
  • Gun powder was used in cannon and fireworks at the time. The fire works in the film all say ''dangerous'' on the side in modern calligraphy (mainland simplified characters), and the fireworks themselves are clearly modern.
  • The proverbs that the emperor keeps spouting are not real proverbs, they are just delivered in a very Confucian style.
  • The emperor's dragons only have 4 claws. They should have 5. see Long, the Chinese dragon.

Film, etc., references I caught in the film.

Written for a class in Spring 2000. With thanks to montecarlo; interrobang; and sid for corrections.

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