Earlier this month, Ming-Na Wen received a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. A talented actress with many prominent franchise characters under her belt (Disney, Marvel, DC and Star Wars... few can say that), my favourite of hers will always be the animated 'Mulan'.
A Disney princess preceding my childhood, I remember watching the 1998 film on DVD later in the 2010s and feeling absolutely inspired. 'Mulan' was just too cool. Defying her family out of love for them, being a strong warrior, speaking her mind, having a glorious singing voice - thank you Lea Salonga - I remember being enamoured by all she stood for.
25 years later from the original release, does the animated 'Mulan' still hold up?
'Mulan' (1998) was originally planned as a short film titled 'China Doll' about a Chinese girl eloping to the west to marry a British prince, a complete jumpscare of a fact to look back on in 2023. This alternate trajectory was only narrowly steered past when the team came across the Chinese poem 'The Song of Fa Mu Lan' and decided to combine the projects.
And so we got Mulan as we know it - an interpretation of the poem taken with numerous creative liberties including the addition of the dragon sidekick Mushu (Eddie Murphy) and filled with timeless bangers ('I'll Make A Man Out of You'? 'Reflection'? Hit after hit!). Right off the bat upon my rewatch in 2023, the most glaring aspects of the film that don't hold up are the cultural inaccuracies, better unpacked by Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and YouTube. Why is Mushu writing a Chinese takeout menu when he's supposed to be writing a letter mobilising a battalion? While some care had been taken to be inspired by Chinese culture, with some nicely accurate things, I'll argue that it was not enough.
BUT THE LETTER MUSHU AND CRI-KEE WRITE TO MOBILIZE MULAN'S BATTALION? CHINESE TAKEN FROM A TAKE-OUT MENU pic.twitter.com/Fn3UgdTJjb— Xiran @ Jakarta (@XiranJayZhao) October 10, 2020
After a rough start, the disguised Mulan slowly earns the respect of the men in the army (including Captain Li Shang, voiced by B.D. Wong). Also perhaps the best song ever made with equal karaoke and gym playlist value - 'I'll Make A Man Out Of You' has a musical sequence.
Most notably, Mulan solves her problems and battles through her wits; from successfully climbing up the pole to win the respect of the soldiers, and aiming the canon to cause an avalanche and defeat the Hun army led by Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer). Later, undisguised Mulan saves China with her wits again by firing a rocket that propels Shan Yu into fireworks.
All Mulan wants to do, of course, is bring honour to her family and father, but she struggles to do so in a world not quite ready for her.
Mulan remains an iconic Disney film after all these years more than anything to me because of its timeless heroine. Growing up in an Asian household, I found the theme of familial piety and bringing honour to one's family absolutely relatable as a child - and even as an adult. When Mulan concludes her hero's journey by successfully doing all three - saving her country, bringing honour to her family and being herself - it's monumental. As so Mulan's legacy on-screen as a fictional character continues off-screen with Ming-Na Wen, who voices her, equally inspires.
Also, 'Mulan' is very cool because few Disney princesses have a kill count - let alone in thousands.