In an age of increasing female empowerment, the search for positive and inspiring heroines in film and the other arts has become easier with increased representation and wider advocacy for the cause. But before gender equality movements became the global phenomena they are today, finding truly trailblazing female characters in popular culture that defied traditional gender roles was a far more challenging endeavour.
Although these characters may not have been as abundantly clear as today, there were still a number of noteworthy personifications in films that left an impression on filmgoers and critics alike. Names like Ripley and Sarah Connor immediately spring to mind but one name that doesn’t get the same recognition is Fa Mulan. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of its theatrical release this month, Disney‘s Mulan and its titular heroine became not just a remarkable example of a strong female lead, but also another clear indication of the evolution of the famed “Disney Princess”.
Mulan should rightfully be seen as a landmark for the Disney Renaissance (the ten year period of renewed critical and financial success for the studio), even amongst the other stellar titles from the time. The penultimate film of the Renaissance, Mulan brought together all the elements of Disney’s 60 years of filmmaking at the time and fashioned a brilliantly new and progressive tale for modern tastes.
While still celebrated and cherished the days of the classic Disney princess (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White etc.) were quickly becoming out of style; Representative of a new age the females of the Disney Renaissance films embodied a new degree of female empowerment (and diversity) sharing the mutual qualities of independence, tenacity and assertiveness. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Esmeralda rebelled against the states and expectations held of them, yet still retained the pure of heart and spirit of love that defined the classic Disney princesses. Together their status as official princesses has been hotly debated amongst the Disney fandom, but crown or no crown they represent a shift in gender representation that has carried through to Disney’s modern hits like Moana and Frozen.
Fa Mulan was a culmination of sorts of this new image marking the most noticeable shift into what is now the modern heroine. Loosely adapted from the Chinese legend, Mulan’s struggle with the cultural norms set for her put her in the company of her fellow ‘princesses’ but it is her ultimate display of love and devotion to her family and father that leads her on a most exceptional journey. Like Belle who sacrifices her own well being for the sake of her father, Mulan marches head-on into battle as part of the Imperial Army and their war against the Huns. Though she may share the same determination as her other Disney counterparts, Mulan is clearly the only one to actually be a warrior.
It is not solely her difficult decision to leave home and impersonate a soldier that is inspiring, but the arduous physical task she must undertake to prove herself to the raucous group of men and the Captain Li Shang. Along the way, the lesson is learned that it is not necessarily the size of the warrior that wins, but the size of the heart and the enduring quest for justice. As with the best Disney films, Mulan has great messaging at its core and though reception was lukewarm in China itself the Studio’s attempts to look for other sources of story material outside of the Western tradition was a welcoming gesture. It may not be totally accurate in its depiction of Ancient China and its customs, but Mulan’s selfless heroism showed that real heroes truly transcend all linguistic and cultural boundaries.
In addition to the film’s narrative, Mulan boasts wonderful production value from the animation to the musical score ensuring it would be another jewel in the Disney catalogue. As with 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (HOND), Mulan dealt with darker subject matter in contrast to generally lighter fare like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Although both fictional like HOND this movie was less fantasy and rooted in historical places and events. This thematic material continues to set these films apart to this day, even amongst such modern hits like Frozen.
Besides Mulan herself, the characterizations in the film round out the story well, especially the main villain Shan Yu. Like Frollo from Hunchback, Shan Yu is easily one of the most terrifying villains not because of magical powers, but because he is simply a human with a great evil to motivate him. The fact that these types of people can (and do) exist in the real world make the character that much more intimidating. Voiced by the late Miguel Ferrer, Shan Yu is the ruthless and calculating leader of the Huns capable both of feats of great physical strength as well as chilling and sadistic moments of taunting and one-liners.
Animated in a genuinely scary manner, Shan Yu is indeed quite a foil for Mulan; the animation of this film is also another treat. While some Chinese critics expressed concern for an overly Western looking feel, the characters here from Mulan to Shang to the Emperor are not drawn in a stereotypical or mocking way, but with genuine respect for Asian culture. The landscapes. clothing and colors are pleasing to the eye, capturing the different geographic locations in the film with great detail. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, wonderful computer-animated work is used to create a charging Hun army down a mountainside; this was certainly not just a “kids movie”!
Celebrated composer Jerry Goldsmith created a greatly stirring musical backdrop infused with elements of Eastern sounds and instrumentation for Mulan’s score. Tracks like “Mulan’s Decision” and “Attack At the Wall” are among some of the highlights; ominous, exotic and at times genuinely unsettling (especially the booming timpani and high pitched strings to accompany Shan Yu and the Huns), Goldsmith’s score is a thrilling addition to the film, rivalled only by the delightful songs by composer Matthew Wilder and lyricist David Zippel.
In the tradition of Disney great Alan Menken, Wilder crafted a charming and thoroughly brilliant song score which like Goldsmith’s music incorporates Chinese melodies into original lines of composition. The beautiful song “Reflection” should rightfully rank as one of Disney’s best while “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” boasts a great military feel with a catchy beat and clever lyrics; Mulan’s score elevates it to a level on par with the classic Disney scores.
In the 20 years since its theatrical release, Mulan has continued to charm, entertain and ultimately inspire audiences around the world. With its exceptional leading heroine, the film became a truly emotional and wondrous feat of animated filmmaking, accentuated by great animation and music. As more and more female leads leave their mark on film and television, we can look back with pride at the groundbreaking works of art who set the mould for great feminine heroes.
Mulan is one such work filled with all the great elements of any Disney classic or any classic film for that matter. For that, it will stand as a truly timeless work of art well into the future.