Mouse House Movie Club #11: Mulan

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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.

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This is some serious David Lean jazz going on here…

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.

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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.

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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 the
moon with eyes that
shine like stars
My girl will marvel at
my strength, adore my
battle scars
I couldn’t care less what she’ll
wear or what she looks like
It all depends on what
she cooks like
Beef, pork, chicken
Mmm
Bet the local girls thought
you were quite the charmer
And I’ll bet the ladies love
a man in armor
This is wonderfully sophisticated and delicate storytelling. As I’ve said, these guys aren’t Gaston – they’re the comic sidekicks. We like them. But they’re perpetrating the same toxic viewpoints that Mulan is struggling against. That in itself is pretty sophisticated, but the context adds extra eloquence. It’s difficult to judge these characters for dreaming like this – they’re at war and they’re under incredible stress. We can forgive them a little fantasy, so the film doesn’t ask that we condemn them, and it certainly doesn’t condemn the women who do have “eyes that shine like stars” even if it frames such standards as dangerous and difficult to meet. It simply makes the point that by ascribing these roles to women, Tao, Ling, and Chien-Po are hurting women like Mulan who don’t fit into those categories, even if they don’t really mean to.

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.

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Be a Man
Indeed, as well as having some vital things to say about women, Mulan also has some significant points to make about men. Mulan’s battle is as much one against patriarchy as it is against Huns, and the film sheds some light on how that damages men as well. ‘Be A Man’ is perhaps the film’s most well-known song, certainly the one that lingers in the mind the most. But it’s darker than its jaunty tune would suggest: a dehumanising number in which we’re told that Li-Shang’s recruits are “a spineless, pale, pathetic lot” who represent “the saddest bunch I ever met”.

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.

Conclusion

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.

The Great Disney Princess Poll

Across the last couple of weeks, I’ve been using the power of Twitter polls to scientifically prove beyond all doubt which Disney Princess is the best of them all. Spoiler alert: it’s Rapunzel…

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My methodology for this highly important poll was utterly and hopelessly unscientific, which is a bit of a problem when you’re scientifically proving something beyond all doubt. First, I stuck up a poll about the best Renaissance Princess. That was quite fun, I thought, so then I did another one about the best Modern Princess. Also fun, so I did a third one, this time focusing on Classic Princesses. “Hey,” I figured. “There’s a chance here for a tournament.” So I made up some Princesses to complete a round of Quarter Finals, and the tournament was set!

Science is fun!

Check out this staggering act of scientific genius in full below…

Ok, yes, this was the worst act of sciencing ever, and I wish I’d had it all mapped out in my head before starting. I pretty much saw it as an individual poll when I started that first one; no follow-ups, no tournament. Just a one-off. If I were to do it again, I’d split the Princesses into batches of two, rather than four, and go from there. I’d probably randomise them, pitting different generations against each other, rather than keeping the eras together in groups. But hey, science is hard, and I got, I think, a C in it at CGSE. So screw it!

The results are genuinely interesting, I think, particularly the popularity of Mulan. Sure she’s a great character, but when we think of the Renaissance period, we generally tend to think of Ariel, Belle, or Jasmine. Mulan’s generally overlooked. But the years have been kind to her, and maybe there’s a good reason for that, as brilliantly articulated by Cat Lester, a PhD student who I follow on Twitter and who has written brilliantly on Frozen.

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This makes total sense and the forthcoming live action remake will be fascinating to follow when viewed through the prism of social development since 1998. Mulan, it seems, was ahead of her time and now that the rest of the world has caught up, she’s finally getting the due she deserves.

The other surprise was the early elimination of Anna and Elsa, and this is where my decision-making really falls down. Had I thought about it more clearly, I’d have split the Sisters of Arendelle up, ensuring that the popularity/unpopularity of one didn’t affect judgement of the other. three of the Sisters Switch rightly pointed out that this could have been a major contributing factor.

I wonder what would have happened had I split them up and divided the tournament into several smaller polls? I also wonder what the results would have been had younger kids been voting on it. Rapunzel seems to fly well with teens and early 20-somethings, perhaps because her “when will my life begin” refrain chimes with an age group that’s starting to fly solo itself. They can obviously relate to Elsa too, but ‘Let It Go’ has become such a sing along anthem, and that sparkly gown such a dress-up favourite, that she seems a favourite of the young in a way she simply isn’t with teens and young adults.

Either way, Rapunzel’s progress to the final didn’t surprise me as she’s a great character; indeed, I personally favour her over Mulan, so part of me was pleased to see her take the crown. But, I was quietly willing Mulan on, if I’m honest. Her success was so unexpected and so significant that it felt right that she should win. More than that, it would have put paid to the nonsense that Princesses are all weak, passive waifs who offer nothing to society and are bad role models for young girls.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, but it hardly diminishes the significance of Mulan, or the Princesses as a whole. My poll may have been the least scientifically sound thing in the history of science, but it underlined what I wanted it to underline: that the Princesses are cool, popular, and relevant. Long may they reign.