Sky On Demand offered me the chance to watch Mulan again for the first time in a few years over the weekend. Again, I was struck by a number of things about this terrific kids’ film, and the great message it sends to boys and girls alike. I can’t claim that many of these observations are original, as Mulan created quite a bit of debate about the different roles of Disney heroines when it was released. However, the latest Disney movie Brave has been similarly dissected, and it’s worth pointing out that Mulan got there first, in 1998.
So why is it so great? And even when it’s not specifically great, why is it still pretty interesting?
- The heroine is a fascinating combination of traditionally male and female qualities. She is brave, dutiful, clumsy, strong, intelligent, kind, resourceful, and plain ‘ol angry.
- She is often drawn with some kind of visual split, particularly in her face, which shows her duality. The sight of her wiping off the make-up after the disastrous meeting with the matchmaker, when she holds the sword in front of her face, and when her hair falls to create two halves of the same face, all contribute to the image that she is not a single, simple stereotype.
- Mulan has some traditional animal helpers in Mushu and Cricket, but they are a long way from Cinderella’s talking mice. They are more like goofy little relatives who you are forced to take on your big adventure.
- Even the two names used by Mulan are interesting – the female Mulan with its echoes of mulish obstinacy, and the lightweight Ping of her male persona.
- The male lead is voiced by two of the less obviously masculine actors/singers in the business – BD Wong (best known at the time for some screechy gay wedding planner roles) and Donny Osmond (hardly the most threatening example of manhood). The warmth of their joint performance makes Shang the soldier completely masculine, without the bombast or one note portrayal of a cartoon hero.
- All the insults in the film relate to femininity, a very telling and subversive approach. Men who are failing are constantly referred to as ‘girls’, ‘ladies’ and ‘daughters instead of sons’. Meanwhile, a woman is concealed in the middle of them.
- It is clear that the expectations placed on men in this society are just as unrealistic and restrictive as those placed on women. In the fantastic song I’ll Make A Man Out Of You, the qualities of manhood are extolled – swift as a coursing river, strong as a typhoon, etc. All while watching a montage of army recruits singularly fail (at least initially) to complete simple military tasks. The companion song for the women, Honour To Us All, makes similarly ridiculous statements about the qualities of women.
- Mulan’s cricket is not a conscience, like Jiminy Cricket, teaching her how to be a ‘real boy’ as in Pinocchio. She needs no guidance to bring out all the most interesting aspects of her character, just the opportunity.