In this review, I focus primarily on the characters and their interactions, as I found them to be the highlight of the film. First, I will address some minor flaws in the film, then I will jump into character analysis, which is the bulk of this review.
Aesthetically, Mulan is one of Disney’s best films. Whether depicting a mountain pass with a simple snow background, or throngs of celebrating Chinese citizens in a city, the animators know exactly when to dazzle the viewer and when to make the viewer focus on the dialogue. As for the music, Fa Mulan’s solo at the beginning of the film, “Reflection,” beautifully lays out her insecurities and doubts, setting the stage for her later growth. And who can forget “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”? The film excels at showing the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and decisions without telling.
The flaws were few, but should be noted. Mulan’s sword injury from Shan Yu and miraculously quick recovery seemed a bit absurd. The running around in the palace and many opportunities she had to finish off Shan Yu grew tiresome, and her impetuous hug of the Emperor seemed completely out of place for the culture and time. The movie also could have ended at a climatic peak once Mulan returned home to her family and Li Shang arrived, yet the film was drawn out slightly longer and ended rather abruptly with the dog and chickens running into the shrine of the ancestors. Despite these imperfections, the film is overwhelmingly dazzling in animation and presents some of the strongest characters of any Disney story.
Mulan’s mother, Fa Li, does not play a very critical role in the film, other than being an escort to “the Matchmaker” at the beginning of the film, and consoling Mulan after the disastrous results of said visit. Grandma Fa is similarly of little consequence to the film, being a minor character who provides some comic relief and introduces us to Cri-Kee, the “lucky” cricket.
I did not find Mushu to be very funny, neither did he have depth of character. The only time he did anything of particular value was his consoling of Mulan following the mountain pass scene.
Mulan as “Ping” befriends Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po, soldiers who for all purposes fulfill the role of the Chinese “Three Stooges" in the film. While entertaining, I did not find these characters particularly interesting, although one does marvel at Chien-Po single-handedly pulling up Yao, Ling, Mulan, Li Shang, and the horse Kahn off the edge of the mountainside. Clearly Chien-Po is the most physically powerful character in the film, the stuff of legend, however it is the villain Shan Yu who gets to show off his strength most.
Speaking of Shan Yu, the villain deserves a mention. He is rather typical Disney villain fare so far as personality, but kudos to the animators for making him far more intimidating than some ugly witch. His menacing yellow eyes and hulking frame, along with the shrill calls of his evil saker falcon definitely gave me the creeps when I was young and first saw the film. Adding to dramatic effect, we are often shown the aftermath of the evil Shan Yu perpetrates, as with the burnt village that Mulan and the other soldiers come upon late in the film.
The Emperor is presented as peaceful and brave in the face of being kidnapped, and gracious as he gives Mulan both his personal royal crest and the sword of the defeated Shan Yu as tokens of honor. His appearances are brief but praiseworthy. He is both idealist and practical, being primarily concerned with the welfare of his people rather than his palace, yet immediately identifying the need for conscription in order to have an army capable of facing the Huns. The only mark against him is his poor choice in having Chi-Fu as his consul, but I suppose that Disney had to fit in a minor antagonist to provide a contrast to the bravery of Li Shang, Mulan, and the other soldiers.
Li Shang is presented as a straightforward and by-the-book leader: promising, strong, and young. He eagerly trains the men under his command all the while Chi-Fu attempts to undermine Li Shang in his written reports. Li Shang shows his character by tolerating Chi-Fu, although we do not see much character development in him until the burnt village and mountain pass scenes.
It is when Mulan and the troops discover the burnt village and the remains of General Li (no Civil War jokes, please) and his army that we see the strength of character in Li Shang. He quietly and rather quickly thrusts a sword into the ground and puts his father’s helm upon it, mourning and remembering him. Yet Li Shang understands the need to move on, and to keep his troops morale high by not losing his resolve. Li Shang inspires more confidence in his leadership both by his handling of the loss of his father, and by his brave resolve when attacked by overwhelming numbers of Huns in the mountain pass. Again Li Shang shows his character upon discovering Mulan’s identity and sparing her life after the battle. It is my contention that Li Shang’s strength of character is what draws Mulan to him, not his looks or class as with so many other male love interests in Disney films.
Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou, is the central figure in both Mulan’s initial crisis and the conclusion of the film. Zhou is a devoted man of prayer, seeking guidance and protection for his family from his ancestors. He clearly loves and reveres his daughter, encouraging her after the unfortunate visit to ‘the Matchmaker.” While he hopes for a traditional life for her and is disappointed at her outspoken nature, he never rejects her, demonstrating signs of an unconditional love which is later proved at the end of the story. While Mulan already suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis, the moving crisis of the film begins when Chi-Fu the Emperor’s consul arrives to conscript Zhou. Zhou shows that his age and crippled body do not dampen his spirit and resolve to fulfill duty. Mulan asks him at one point, “So you will die for honor?” To this Zhou replies, “I will die doing what’s right!”
As Mulan watches Zhou’s body fail him during sword practice, we see a daughter’s love for her father tearing at her. Zhou is obviously incapable of serving anymore, but will do what he believes is right regardless of consequence or ability. It is undoubtedly this which causes Mulan to realize that she too will do what she believes is right regardless of the consequences for her or her ability. Mulan’s decision to engage in deception and abandon her home is not motivated by rebellion, but out of overwhelming love for her father and desire to protect him.
Fa Mulan, the film’s protagonist and heroine, is not, technically speaking, a princess. Neither is she like any of Disney’s princesses. Mulan is flawed and sometimes impulsive, outspoken in a culture which values saving face and women’s silent obedience. Yet Mulan is not a foolish or rebellious young woman. She is a very believable, human character who struggles with the desire to fulfill her duties and bring her family honor, while she also feels called to a different life than the women of her family. She does not set out to find romance, or become infatuated with the first man she meets. Indeed, as the soldier “Ping,” she is surrounded by men. Mulan demonstrates both her resolve and inventiveness in climbing the pole to retrieve the arrow during training, and she as “Ping” again thinks faster and more clearly than others by commandeering the final rocket and aiming it toward the mountain peak. While her actions nearly kill everyone on the mountain, they succeed in destroying the bulk of Shan Yu’s forces, saving China and her comrades.
The film’s closing scene contains my favorite bit of dialogue. Upon returning home, Mulan presents to her father Zhou both the sword and the royal crest as gifts to honor the family. To this, Zhou states, “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter.” This line and the following embrace speak powerfully to the love that family can have, and were the favorite moments of the film for me.
Mulan is a masterful work in aesthetics, music, voice-acting, and especially character development. The heroine Mulan is truly strong while feminine, admirable despite initial insecurities, and very much human. The film is anchored around a great female protagonist, while providing some remarkably good male role models in the form of Mulan’s captain and her father, as well as the wise emperor.