Movie 36: Mulan

Movie_poster_mulanIf you are reading all of my reviews you will remember my recent thoughts about Pocahontas.  I was not a big fan.  I felt the characters were more caricatures and everything was very predictable.  It also bothered me a little bit that the Powhatan tribe had tried to help Disney tell the true story and they had been denied that opportunity and hated the end picture.

So, now we have Mulan= also telling a non-Caucasian ethnic group’s female legend story.  Am I going to dislike it too?

Nope! I really enjoy Mulan.

mulan and li shang

The reason Mulan works better than Pocahontas is it has a layered and more complex lead character and aside from Mushu, it doesn’t try to teach Westerners or talk down to them.  This is a story about a Chinese girl and all that she meets and interacts with are Chinese.  Some of them are meant for humor but it is never cold and degrading.  At least not to me.

I did look online for about an hour to see if I could find any blogs of Chinese or Chinese Americans who hated the film but for the most part it was all positive.  (There were some hard-core feminists who still found fault with it. Geesh!).

Most of the movie is about Mulan fitting in and finding her place in the army.  And that it does very well.

The Production-

Mulan was released in 1998 and it was conceived as a way to appeal to the Chinese market.  Lion King had been a huge success there and Disney was on thin ice with the government because of their funding of a live action movie about the Dali Lama in Tibet.

They took a poem called The Song of Fa Mu Lan and a book called China Doll and combined them together to get the story.  Many scenes like the emperor’s palace were studied by the artists to be authentic.

They also used new technology made by Pixar to create thousands of soldiers in the battle scenes and they hold up very well- better than most CGI at that time.


They also do a good job teaching kids about the costs of war without showing death, wounds, blood etc.


Such scenes give the film real heart and gravity without becoming overbearing or too much for children.

It has some problems but overall I really like it.

The score was written by Jerry Goldsmith with songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel.  It only has 4 songs and 1 reprise but they are a lot of fun.

The Story-

The Huns have attacked the Great Wall and word has gone out to the Emperor who decides to gather together an army to defeat the invaders.

Meanwhile Mulan is getting ready to appear before the matchmaker and be approved as a bride.  We get our first of 4 songs which sets a nice tone and helps us understand Mulan’s predicament (kind of like Belle in Beauty and the Beast).

The matchmaking ceremony does not go well and Mulan seems devastated.  It reminds me of Ariel in Little Mermaid- a girl not at home in her world, her body.   If you haven’t gathered I love when that storyline is in a movie . I relate to it so much.   I think a lot of girls do.

Desperate for a sense of belonging Mulan sings one of the better 90s Disney ballads sung beautifully by Lea Salonga (who was also Jasmine’s singing voice)

My favorite part of the character Mulan is how well- rounded and  interesting she is.  She doesn’t always behave the way you expect her too.  She isn’t just willful and disobedient (like an Ariel wouldn’t have even shown up to the matchmakers).  She’s trying to do what she is told but it isn’t working.  Same is true in the army.  She never has to be rescued at any point in the movie (actually her lowest is after the matchmaker, not after battle.  Love that!).

The main catalyst for the movie starts with Mulan’s father Fa Zhou being asked to fight in the war against the Huns.  Mulan tries to speak in his behalf but in doing so she shames him.  With her father unwilling to dishonor himself or listen to her she takes matters into her own hands (also like Ariel) and sneaks off in his armor to join the army, as a man

The music and staging of this scene almost reminds me of an 80s action movie.  (Pat Morita of Kirate Kid fame is the emperor in this movie btw).

Mulan’s ancestors hear of her leaving and accidentally send a dragon lizard to support her instead of a stone dragon.  These ancestors are a little bit cringe-worthy but they are in the movie so briefly that I don’t think anyone will be offended by them.ancestors

The lizards name is Mushu, and he is the Genie of the movie, the fast talking comic relief voiced by Eddie Murphy.  To be honest, I much prefer his voice work here to the Shrek movies.  It is less shouty and the writing is less crude.

mushu and ping

Arriving at the training camp Mulan muddles her way along, pretending to be a man, and learning to be a soldier.  The fellow soldiers are a lot of fun and her trainer Li Shang (singing voice by Donny Osmond believe it or not) is tough without being too mean for kids.

army friends

I really like everything about this musical number:

There is also a very funny scene where all the soldiers surprise Mulan as she is bathing! This is good physical comedy

They end up going off to battle to try and help Li Shang’s father and we get our last song- A Girl Worth Fighting For.

but they have been caught and destroyed.  Just then they are ambushed by the huns and we get our battle.

This is probably a good point to bring up Mulan’s greatest weakness as a movie- the villain.  I watched it twice today and I still had no idea what his name is or anything else about him except he is a Hun.  Even Edgar in the Aristocats had more personality than this guy.  I’m going to say it- worst Disney villain ever. Honestly his hawk is less bland.

shan yu

But in the battle with nameless villain army Mulan saves the day by creating an avalanche with a rocket but in celebrating she is wounded.   Her secret is of course out as she is bandaged up.  We get the classic ‘liar reveal’ story trope but it isn’t played to hard and Li Shang is angry but does not kill Mulan because she just saved his life.

The storytelling clips along so well in the movie.  Hardly anything drags and I think that’s what makes it work so well even with a predictable moment like the liar reveal.

Mulan is left in disgrace and the army pushes forward to the Emperor.  But as she mounts her horse Mulan see’s some of the Huns survived the avalanche and are heading towards the city. Racing Mulan warns Li Shang but he still feels betrayed by her and won’t listen, and the Huns take over the palace.

Through some creative thinking Mulan rallies the troops and they are able to defeat the Huns.  I can’t imagine a kid in the world not enjoying this scene.  It’s exciting, funny, and even with a lame villain it still works:

In a great moment Mulan is honored by the Emperor for her bravery and quick thinking.

Finally at the end we see Li Shang has forgiven Mulan and come to visit.

Movie Review/Conclusion-

The movie is actually really rich and deep in its characters.  I didn’t even go into the soldiers who are all funny, Mulan’s Grandma, a cute cricket, and a crotchety assistant to the emperor.  We meet a lot of people yet the movie doesn’t feel cluttered or crowded.  It is about a girl in the army so it is appropriate to have a large cast.  Perhaps this makes up for having the lamest Disney villain?

Mulan is kind of like Tangled in a way.  Both movies were made to please both boys and girls instead of the girl movie/boy movie philosophy so often employed by Disney.  I think it completely succeeds in that appeal.  Boys will like the action and humor from the soldiers and Mushu.


Girls will like Mulan because she can be their first warrior princess (ok.  She’s not a princess but you know what I mean).  Mulan is layered and interesting.  She is unselfish but not without flaws.  In fact, I think Mulan is one of Disney’s most dynamic characters.

Like I said, really my only flaw is the villain.  I think one or two scenes giving him some personality would help the movie.  As it is, the film certainly isn’t ruined by its villain.

The songs are more of the Aladdin/Lion King pop vibe, but I like them and the ancestors scenes are really the only cringe-worthy segments, which is saying a lot for Disney in an ethnic movie (usually not their strong suit).

They also do a good job blending in the traditional Chinese watercolors with the animation (see Girl Worth Fighting For…).  The backdrops are also beautifully drawn with a watercolor flair.  There are a lot of little touches like that which help it feel rich and textured.

But mainly I just like the character of Mulan a lot.  She is definitely one of my favorites.

Overall Grade- A 

24 thoughts on “Movie 36: Mulan

  1. I think Shan Yu works just fine for this particular movie, mostly because, unlike most heroines, Mulan is not really fighting against the villain, she is fighting against society and perceptions. And for her own identity. Shan Yu is just a symbol for war, and he works just fine in this role. He has some really memorable moments (like the whole thing with the doll). Not the bet Disney Villain, but not the worst by far. There is a long list of Villains which are utterly forgettable and don’t even work for the movie they are in.

    And now I have a lot of reviews to look through…

    1. I hadnt thought about it like that but you make a solid point. She is part of an army and so the whole army is the villain.
      Thanks for reading! After reading some of yours I’m excited to hear your perspective. It’s been a bucket list item of mine to do this and my bum knee came just in time 🙂

    2. Did you hear they are doing a live action for Mulan? What do you think of the idea? It seems like it will come down to casting and how they do Mushu. Just curious for your thoughts

      1. I am not keen on the real adaptations, but Mulan is actually the one Disney movie which really lends itself for one. I am not particularly keen on Eddie Murphy reprising the role because imho the one true weakness of the original movie is his voice acting, it doesn’t really fit that well. I would love it if they went truly epic on this one. At least they don’t need an excuse this time around to include battles and explosions.

        What they really need is an actress with a good comedic timing. I think too many people overlook how funny Mulan actually is when she reacts to what is happening around her.

      2. Very good point. I agree about Mulan and the humor and Mushu. It has the potential to be epic as you say. I wonder if they will just have Mushu as a lizard like they do with the mice in Cinderella? It would end up being more like Pascal in Tangled instead of Mushu.
        I think a lot of this will come down to casting. I hope they do a better job than the Mulan they got on Once Upon a Time who I didn’t think looked very Chinese and wasn’t a good actress. Unlike Maleficent I think with a Mulan adaptation I think they will have to build out more of a story behind the villain in a live action version and it seems like if they aren’t going to use the songs which so far none of the 3 have the story could come off as really trite and silly with the script in the wrong hands. But it could be good too and I do see some potential.

        I’m with you on not being keen on the live action adaptations but am feeling a little more positive after Cinderella so they’ve got 1 out of 3 right.

  2. I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like this movie. I don’t dislike it. But I’ve always been extremely neutral to this film!

    And I agree with you about the villain. He’s probably the most forgettable Disney villain. Maybe along with the guy from Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

    And I totally disagree with Mulan being a “princess”.

  3. Well, this is my first visit to the blog, and I like it. I agree wholeheartedly with this review. Shan Yu is a complete dud, and one of the most forgettable villains ever. He does not even have a small backstory.

    There ahs been a lot of debate about Shang’s sexuality. What do you think of it?

    1. Welcome to the blog! I’m excited to hear your perspective.
      I think even one scene with a little personality or motives would have helped with villain. I still have a hard time remembering his name.
      I never thought about Shang being gay. I don’t see it but will have to give it some thought. Hard to tell when around so many men what is just friendly behavior and what is more. I liked he was tough without being a jerk. Nice balance.
      Thanks for commenting

      1. Well you will definitely be hearing them now. I am currently reading your Hercules review, and working back.

        Many think that he is bisexual because they think he was attracted to Ping.

  4. Awesome review! Honestly though, I actually enjoyed the villain even though he’s not exactly as memorable as villains like maybe Jafar or Scar or someone like that. If there was a villain that I’d consider the worst, it would likely be Alameda Slim from Home On The Range.

    Yeah, I enjoyed the songs in this film and I actually like Eddie Murphy’s voice role in this film better than in Shrek. For sure the writing in this one is better than in Shrek too.

    You know, I agree that Mulan is a really great movie. Also, I agree with you that her motives are probably better than say Ariel’s in The Little Mermaid. At least Mulan was a little more selfless and things like that. Just curious, you think that Ariel went about chasing her dreams the wrong way, or would you say you agree with the way she did that? I’m just curious.

    1. Thanks for your great comment. I agree about the villain. One’s that came after were worse than Sheng. I hadnt seen those yet when writing this review.

      I also agree about Eddie Murphy. Mushu has more personality and story, not just telling jokes like Donkey.

      I think Ariel was put in a spot where she had no other choice but to do the wrong thing. She knew she didnt belong in her body and world and the only way to get out of it was to make a deal with the devil. Mulan has other choices but she picks the selfless one for another person where Ariel makes the choice for herself at the expense of others. Ariel didnt know what she was doing was going to hurt others. That’s the difference between her and Elsa. Elsa is told if she becomes who she needs to be she will kill Anna. That paralyzes her and makes her not even have the bad choice of Ariel. Elsa must hold in her true self where at least Ariel has a 3 day shot at it.

      Mulan doesnt know she is finding herself. She’s just trying to save her father so in many ways it’s a different personal journey than Elsa and Ariel. Trying to think of another like it in the Disney world.

      Such great movies!

      1. I understand! You’re definitely right that Ariel had no choice but to make a deal with Ursula and that she didn’t know she would hurt others. And yes, I’ll go ahead and say that I agree with hers and Mulan’s motives. Anyway, great review again!

      2. It’s interesting you wouldn’t think Mulan’s selflessness and her story would be so unique but is there another like her? Maybe Belle?

  5. My feelings on ‘Mulan’ are pretty much spot-on right here! This was also one of the handful of Disney animated films that my brother would gladly watch; I think the epic action scenes prepared us both for ‘Lord of the Rings’ just a few years later. I even think Mulan herself gets underestimated by casual viewers, since while she isn’t as expressive or ambitious as Belle or Ariel, we see her grow out of the confines of her place in society, she doesn’t want to be a tomboy, she wants to make her family happy while finding happiness for herself, and everything she does in the film is to protect her family, and eventually the whole kingdom, altruistically. I’d say her actions speak the loudest of any Disney protagonist, and that’s against some stiff competition.

    Shan-Yu is a fairly impotent villain, unlike Shere Khan he’s not charismatic or memorable, and is an example that an army and fighting skills alone does not a great villain make. The scene with the Ancestors definitely could have been done better, something more sublime like the scenes with Master Oogway in ‘Kung-Fu Panda’, something grand and inspirational. The soldiers and Mushu were great comic foils while the ancestors barely worked in that regard. With all that said, everything else in this film is pitch-perfect; the visual style, the excellent Jerry Goldsmith score, the rousing action scenes, the comedy from the soldiers, and while I do like Eddie Murphy as Mushu I do slightly prefer his role in ‘Shrek’ and I know I’m the minority on this page, I just find Donkey funnier. Then again Mushu does have more heart to his character than Donkey, so different strokes for different films I suppose. And of course, dare I forget the songs? While they’re all good, ‘Make a Man Out Of You’ is EXCEPTIONAL, I used to practice Tae-Kwon-Do to that song! In the end, I’d say Mulan definitely earns its fandom despite one or two hitches.

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