Mulan – Disney’s thirty-sixth animated feature film, released in 1998, was the first of these movies to be set in China. Interestingly, the original Aladdin story takes place in China, but the Disney version didn’t incorporate this idea. Disney was apparently trying to get back in good with the Chinese government, after being criticized for funding a film about the Dalai Lama. It’s based on a legend that dates back to the sixth century, and maybe even earlier. In many ways, it’s a fairly straight retelling, featuring a girl who disguises herself as a man in order to take his father’s place in fighting off an invasion. In the earliest known version of the story, her fellow soldiers don’t find out her secret until some time after their victory, however, while the movie treats the revelation as an important plot point. Then again, it’s not like the sixth-century ballad had a lot of dramatic tension. It’s been pointed out by people who actually know Chinese (I certainly would never have known it) that the character’s personal name is Mandarin and her family name, Fa, is Cantonese. The Mandarin equivalent would be Hua, which is indeed the most common family name given for the character. She uses the name Ping while in the army, and Hua Ping means “flowerpot” or “eye candy.”
The film is supposed to be set during the Han Dynasty, and not surprisingly there are some anachronisms, but I’m not familiar enough with ancient Chinese history to have noticed them. What I did notice was that women in formal settings had painted white faces, which makes me think of Japanese geishas. Was this also practiced in China? I can’t say I know. The bad guys are the Huns, led by Shan Yu, who are presented as brutal and conniving.
I guess it’s okay to negatively portray an entire ethnic group if they don’t exist anymore. Or do they? Apparently historians aren’t even agreed on whether these Huns are the same ones who invaded Europe. The direct look at war, including showing a village that had been decimated by the Huns, is somewhat dark for a Disney movie. Shan Yu’s unseen but implied death by rocket is also somewhat brutal, although cartoon characters do have a way of shrugging off explosions. That’s not to say there isn’t a good amount of comic relief. Mulan’s fellow soldiers provide some of this, but the main joker is Mulan’s tiny guardian dragon with the voice of Eddie Murphy. His name is Mushu, and while the reference to mu shu pork is obvious, I have to wonder if the writers were aware that the word for the dragons depicted on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon was “mushhushshu.” If not, it’s an amusing coincidence.
Mushu was the only talking animal in the film, but there were a few other prominent non-human characters, including the lucky cricket Cri-Kee and the Fa family’s horse Khan.
Perhaps the strangest animal character, however, is the dog Little Brother, who only makes significant appearances at the beginning and end of the movie, but has a very odd appearance.
The sixth-century ballad gives Mulan an actual little brother, too young to join the army, so I wonder if the dog’s name is somehow a joke on this.
Finally, I should note that it’s odd to sometimes see Mulan counted as a Disney Princess, when she’s not royalty either by birth or marriage. Her boyfriend is from a famous military family, and hence might be considered nobility, but certainly not royalty. I guess it’s just an attempt to add some diversity to the group.