For this assignment, I decided to watch and review the 1998 animated film “Mulan” and criticize the hell out of it. Let me preface this blog post by saying that this is one of my all time favorite Disney movies, so pretty much none of the following are really my beliefs. But it was fun to put on such a negative attitude while watching the movie.
First off, this film is certainly a lot darker than the average animated Disney flick. It opens with the murder of a nameless soldier and the invasion of China. The entire film is about war. Mulan is the only Disney princess with a body count. And Disney doesn’t shy away from the violence too much, either. When the soldiers come across the destroyed village in the mountains, there are no bodies or wounded civilians, but the houses are all in ruins, the sky is blood red, and Mulan finds a doll on the ground—hinting that everyone, even children, has died. And then the frame widens to reveal the rest of the carnage, and there are a few seconds in the shot of dead soldiers and horses as far as the eye can see. For Disney—that’s pretty dark stuff. Although no one is really shown dying on screen, there are several instances like the subtext with the doll, where viewers are meant to understand that someone is being killed. For instance, when the Huns capture two Imperial soldiers, the Hun leader, Shan Yu sends them away to tell their commanding officers that the Huns are coming. As the two soldiers flee, Shan Yu turns to an archer and asks, “How many men does it take to deliver a message?” The archer replies, “One.” And smirks as he shoots an arrow. I can see many smaller children getting upset over instances like this, especially if they weren’t prepared for it. And who would think to prepare a child for so much darkness before sitting down to watch a Disney movie?
Secondly, this is another Disney film that deals with other cultures—outside of the traditional European folk/fairytale that they are so comfortable with. And it has to be asked—how much of the Chinese culture portrayed in the film is authentic, and how much is Disney’s and America’s perception of Chinese culture?
The most stereotyped characters are the annoying council member Chi Fu, the Emperor himself, and the villain. In the case of Chi Fu, the character is drawn like a racist caricature, and his voice actor has one of the most pronounced and heavy accents. He is annoying and pompous, and most often used for comedic effect. Other characters make fun of him, and he is portrayed as less manly than any of the other soldiers. The Emperor, though certainly a “good guy”, often sounds like he is quoting from slips of paper inside fortune cookies, with his many wise, cryptic sayings.
The villainous Shan Yu, and the rest of the Huns, are dehumanized extensively. Shan Yu is grey-faced and yellow-eyed with long, pointed fingernails like claws, and pointed fang-like teeth. He is also very hulking and animal-like, with seemingly super-human strength, and his constant hanging from trees and the roofs, of buildings. But, it’s all right for Disney to villainize the Huns—they’re not really around as a people anymore!
All of these examples may not seem so bad on their own, except that they are contrasted against the rest of the characters, who, while still being Asian, are a much less over-the-top portrayal of their ethnicity. Mulan has paler skin than any of the other characters, as well as rounder eyes. The hunky male lead, Captain Li Shang has a square jaw and no trace of an Asian accent.
Thirdly, the biggest problem in the movie is the constant enforcing of both male and female stereotypes. While many cite “Mulan” as a feminist film, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The first song, “Honor To Us All”, has the following lyrics: “A girl can bring her family great honor in one way, by striking a good match, and this could be the day. Men want girls with good taste, calm, obedient, who work fast-paced. With good breeding and a tiny waist…” Mulan’s only worth is in how suitable she is for marriage and domestic life. And while she doesn’t necessarily fit in at home, or do well when she meets the matchmaker for assessment, it is still something she wants. The shame and sadness is clear on her face when she returns home after disgracing her family with the matchmaker.
Additionally, there are a number of other times in the movie where “girl” is used as an insult. When Mulan is found out as a woman, Chi Fu says, “I knew there was something wrong with you! A woman!” and later he says, “She’ll never be worth anything! She’s a woman!” When she is about to be executed for impersonating a soldier, at first her friends plead for her life, until Chi Fu reminds them that it is the law, at which point they stop trying to save her and merely watch sadly. And in the Imperial City, Mulan discovers that no one will listen to her warnings that the Huns are still alive because, as her sidekick Mushu puts it, “you’re a girl again”. All of this points to the clear message that women are worth less than men. And if you would argue that Mulan proves her worth by becoming a soldier and saving her country, it must be remembered that she did it all, as a man and not as a woman.
The enforcing of gender roles applies for men as well in this movie, though not to the same degree. The song “Be A Man”, while undeniably catchy, seems to suggest both that all men and only men should be “swift as a coursing river, [have] all the force of a great typhoon, …the strength of a raging fire, and [be] mysterious as the dark side of the moon”. Mulan embracing these ideas and becoming the best soldier in the camp only shows that she “became a man” in order to do so.
Finally, it could be argued that the film promotes the idea that the ends justify the means. Mulan “ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived her commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese Army, destroyed the Emperor’s palace…” BUT she also saved them all, so that makes it okay. Plus, she was “true to her heart” in doing all of it. Imagine if she hadn’t saved China. She would have had to suffer some pretty serious consequences! The overall message of the film seems to be that it’s alright to defy your parents, lie to your superiors, etc… as long as it is all for a good cause, and as long as you’re being true to what you believe to be right, which is certainly not a good message for children to be left with.