This is the first Mouse House Movie Club I’ve put together in a little while. I apologise for not keeping the feature going over the last few weeks, but, well, I’ve not been in the mood for cute animals and funny sidekicks of late. With everything that’s going on in the world, Disney can feel a little pointless. After all, there are no wicked witches as evil as Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump is a misogynist so vile he makes Gaston look like a chivalrous prince.
That said, while Disney’s version of the world can seem a little disconnected from reality, it’s an important escape. When terrible things happen, you must sit up and take notice, but you’ve also got to give yourself time to breathe, otherwise the sheer horror of what that gigantic orange blob is doing becomes too much to bear. So, I decided to load up a classic and write another feature. I enjoyed doing so and hope you enjoy reading it.
There was only ever one classic in mind for this edition, and that’s Mulan. There are a couple of very good reasons for this. 1) Disney’s art sellers Cyclops Print Works released a glorious and badass Mulan print this week that captures her grace and strength with wonderful simplicity. 2) A film about a brave and strong woman seems appropriate a week on from the Women’s March. 3) It’s Chinese New Year, an important time for a different culture that’s well worth acknowledging as Trump tries to stamp out anything that doesn’t fit within his minuscule world view.
Also, Mulan is good. Like, seriously good. So before deep-diving into the more social and political elements of the film, it’s worth discussing it on its filmic merits.
Mulan: Like, seriously good.
Here are four frames from Mulan. They’re taken from random and very different moments in the film, and come courtesy of the always awesome Disney Screengrabs.
Look at how different each shot is from the others. Not just in the camera angle and the way the moment is being captured, but also in terms of the colours. The rich reds, the muddy dark blues, the cold gray-whites, the muted greens. No two scenes are the same in Mulan, and that’s great for animation nerds such as myself, who revel in such detail and diversity, but also great for the film. Mulan is an epic and a classic heroes’ journey, and by giving each stage in her journey a distinct look, it feels more even grander, at times rivalling even some of the great live action epics of Hollywood history.
More significantly, it lends a sense of scale to Mulan’s achievement. While lesser films would resort to having characters tell us how arduous the trip is, Mulan is smart enough to show us. Thanks to the range of the colour palate, the film makes each scene seem fresh and each challenge feel genuinely new and unnerving for our hero. We all know what it’s like to feel lost or overwhelmed in environments we don’t know or can’t understand, and that’s how we feel when watching Mulan. We empathise because the film visually gives us an emotion to empathise with.
It’s why films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, indeed most Zack Snyder films, don’t work (apologies fans of he and the film. I appreciate both have taken a huge pummelling of late, but, well, they’re terrible). If we’re seeing the same kind of visuals from scene to scene, the film has no ebb and flow, it turns into a long monotonous hum, instead of a song. Mulan is the Bohemian Rhapsody of Disney films, flinging you from one distinct style to the next and making for a heckuva journey while doing so.
Speaking of music, there’s also great joy to be found in Jerry Goldsmith’s subtle and sensitive score, which manages to feel authentically Chinese without ever descending into cliche. One of cinema’s great musical innovators, Goldsmith plays it fairly straight on Mulan and is careful to ensure that his music never overpowers the film, instead working in tandem with the visuals to heighten the epic scale and intimate emotion. Ditto the songs, almost all of which come at the start of the film. As such, it doesn’t actually feel like a musical, certainly not in the same way The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast do. As I’ve said here before, songs in Disney films are like soliloquys in Shakespeare plays: they’re moments where the characters confess their innermost thoughts to the audience.
Mulan expresses that better than any other Disney musical. It’s a Shakespearean history play, where intimate emotions are painted across an epic canvas with glorious colours and beautiful songs.
When will my reflection show/Who I am inside?
Nowhere is this better seen than in ‘Reflection’. In a bold move, Disney went in a different direction for the film’s I Want Song. ‘Reflection’ isn’t a stirring power ballad, or empowering statement of intent. It’s a rather sad and introspective number where we see a downtrodden Mulan lamenting the fact that she can’t be her true self and can’t live up to the demands of her family or the society around her. Christina Aguilera sang the ‘pop song’ version, and while it’s pretty enough, it fails to communicate the nuance and tragedy of the film version. It’s simply not a pop song. It’s something different and remarkable.
It’s worth examining the song’s lyrics in more detail, because it (and Mulan as a whole) was well ahead of its time.
Look at me,
I will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part?
Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.
That’s the first verse, and it speaks more clearly to modern day identity politics than many modern films that are trying to directly address those issues. I can’t speak for women or LGBTQ people, I can only try to understand their experiences through the people I have the great honour to know, but I imagine this first verse covers it pretty neatly. The struggle to be perfect, the sense of playing a role, the desperation not to hurt those you love by simply being who you are. It’s all there. The pain Mulan is communicating must be tangibly real to anyone who doesn’t fit in with society’s increasingly harsh strictures, and ‘Reflection’ communicates it beautifully, perhaps better than any other Renaissance film, which were all aiming to achieve similar commentary.
It’s why I’m excited for the live action remake of the film that’ll be hitting screens next year. Mulan feels a little lost in the Renaissance mix, lacking the iconic status of The Lion King, the romantic sweep of Beauty and the Beast, and the enduring tunes of The Little Mermaid. As it’ll be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, Disney could give it a big birthday push: a new Blu Ray, a theatrical re-release, a huge merchandise onslaught. But no matter how much they promote it, it’ll simply never garner as much attention as a live action film. Fans of the original will hang on every casting announcement and trailer, and the new generation of teenagers, with their awareness of and interest in diversity, will also be keen to know who’s starring and how the story will play out. That will no doubt lead them to watching the original and discovering what a truly wonderful film it is.
That may seem a little naive on my part, but ‘Reflection’ alone will chime with thousands of people, and as the recent protests against Trump have shown, fictional heroes have more power than we may think. If a new film means Mulan gets seen by more people, then so be it. The film’s message is significant, its main character is an avatar for everyone who can relate to her, and ‘Reflection’ is an anthem for them to get behind. May it ring out clearly and may everyone who sees themselves in it feel strong enough to join in.
A Girl Worth Fighting For
Beyond Mulan herself, one of the most compelling things about the film is how it extends its feminism beyond the main character – and in pretty subtle ways. Beauty and the Beast communicated its feminism through Gaston as well as Belle, showing him as the enemy of everything feminism stands for. It’s very direct, very broad, and very on the nose. Nothing wrong with that of course, but Mulan tries a different approach, showing threats to feminism as something a little more subtle and insidious, something that even good guys – and worse, comic sidekicks – can inadvertently succumb to.
Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po are our sidekicks here, and great ones they are too, generating the necessary laughs and silliness to ensure things don’t become too serious. But they treat Mulan poorly at first, and even when they’ve come to accept her (albeit in her disguise as Ping) they still display signs of sexism, most notably through their song ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’, in which they get through the trials of war by fantasising about their perfect wives. Here’s a sample of the lyrics…
I want her paler than themoon with eyes thatshine like starsMy girl will marvel atmy strength, adore mybattle scarsI couldn’t care less what she’llwear or what she looks likeIt all depends on whatshe cooks likeBeef, pork, chickenMmmBet the local girls thoughtyou were quite the charmerAnd I’ll bet the ladies lovea man in armor
Moments like this add layers to the film’s message, but again underline just how hard Mulan has it. Not only is she fighting a vast society that refuses her the right to be who she is, she’s also fighting well-meaning friends who are sleepwalking into that self-same oppression. It’ll be a wake-up call to many men and young boys who may do the same. None of us are perfect, and Mulan has the sophistication to point that out, and instead of condemning show a way for us to better ourselves and be more understanding of the needs and struggles of others.
As the song goes on, it reveals that the men of this army are subject to similar societal pressures as Mulan is. Here’s another lyrical sample:
[men] WE ARE MEN
We must be swift as a coursing river
[men] WE ARE MEN
With all the force of a great typhoon
[men] WE ARE MEN
With all the strength of a raging fire
Patriarchy (and this is what so many Men’s Rights Activists simply don’t understand) is devastating for everyone. Mulan is expected to be the perfect daughter: to be poised and graceful and elegant, and if she’s not then she’s somehow a lesser woman, a lesser human being. Men suffer in a similar way. The expectations on them may be focused on strength rather than passivity, but they’re still unrealistic and those who don’t meet them are dismissed as being spineless, pale, and pathetic.
The great victory at the end of the film is that Li-Shang, Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po break free from these pressures, just as Mulan does: Li-Shang accepting that Mulan has a great plan and taking her lead, the sidekicks dressing as women and playing their part in the scheme as distractions. Sadly, not all men have such moments of revelation and stay stuck in the patriarchal expectations imposed on them. It’s why suicide rates among young men are so high (certainly in the UK) and why a particularly toxic brand of misogyny has risen up of late. Men are told that they have to be strong and in charge: the idea of listening to women is a threat to that and therefore a threat to their very humanity. So feminism is fought against – vehemently – and they remain fixed in their destructive societal norms, dragging women along with them. It’s a tragedy; one Mulan communicates – as it does everything else – with incredible intelligence and great conscience.
Mulan should be required viewing at school. It’s simply that important. This has been an ineloquent piece that doesn’t cover even half of what makes the film so significant and I feel a bit uncomfortable for having dedicated a portion of a piece about an incredible woman to the film’s men. But maybe that’s why Mulan is so good. It’s a call for unity and understanding that shows how we all play parts in each other’s oppression, even if we’re not always aware of it. That sounds depressing, I know, but it also shows how simple respect and empathy means we can help each other out of that oppression.
In these dark and disturbing times, Mulan speaks clearly to who are, who we should be, and who we could be. It’s about time we started listening.