When the ruthless Huns breach China's Great Wall the Emperor issues orders demanding one man from every family join the army. Rather than let an elderly father depart to certain death, brash but courageous girl Fa Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) rides off to join the fray in his stead, disguised as a boy. Alongside the eye-opening experience learning to live as a soldier and a man she struggles to hide a secret that, if discovered, could see her executed.
Disney faced a tricky task adapting a legend steeped in traditional Chinese values that continue to serve as an integral part of that nation's cultural identity. Written by Sixth Century poet and scholar Guo Maoqian, The Ballad of Hua Mulan had been a staple of Chinese cinema but largely unknown elsewhere in the world. Most movie adaptations were Huangmei Opera films, notably the Shaw Brothers' Lady General Hua Mulan (1964) starring genre icon Ivy Ling Po. Post-Disney the story was revived with several Hong Kong television serials showcasing both dramatic and comedic takes on the character while the lavish and surprisingly grim 2009 historical epic saw Vicky Zhao Wei assume the iconic role. Yet despite this rich legacy in Asian media Disney's animated version remains the most widely-embraced interpretation. Remarkably the studio pulled off a profound and lyrical take on a story that deftly juggles conservative and progressive ideals. And delivered their first kick-ass action heroine to boot.
Alongside an enduring pop cultural impact as the first Asian Disney Princess, Mulan's relevance extends beyond race as an inspiration to generations of young women looking to evolve beyond gender barriers. Voiced with spirit and grace by Ming-Na Wen, then largely known as the no less significant lead of The Joy-Luck Club (1993). In later years a run of increasingly dynamic TV roles saw her belatedly recognized as an Asian-American icon, but here she perfectly inhabits the animated incarnation of the feisty yet faceted Mulan, exhibiting a deftness with both drama and comedy. In no small achievement the film assembles an impressive while not technically authentic Asian talent: BD Wong as love interest Captain Li Shang (although his musical numbers are performed by a whiter-than-white Donnie Osmond), Pat Morita, James Hong, George Takei, James Shigeta, Soon Tek-Oh, etc.
However the star turn belongs to Mushu, the diminutive dragon Mulan's spirit ancestors task with safeguarding the impulsive young heroine, voiced by the decidedly non-Asian Eddie Murphy. In the midst of the period Tang dynasty setting, Mushu's anachronistic antics admittedly stick out like a sore thumb. The Disney studio clearly shoehorned Murphy's character into the story to recapture some of Robin Williams' live-wire comedy magic from Aladdin (1992). Then again it is Eddie Murphy for crying out loud! He energizes every scene he is in and the script cleverly gives Mushu something to prove that interweaves nicely with Mulan's motives.
Scripted by Rita Hsiao, frequent animation scribe Philip LaZebnik, future director Chris Sanders, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer and Raymond Singer from a story by the late children's author Robert D. San Souci, the film takes time and care to develop substantial themes and character arcs. Between comedy skits and musical numbers it lets the dramatic weight of potential loss and sacrifice sink in for both Mulan and the audience and skillfully avoids making light of the harsh realities of war. On a technical level the animation has dynamically translates the unique elegance and lyrical qualities inherent in traditional Chinese art. Even though the action scenes pale by comparison with what animators went on to achieve in films like Kung Fu Panda (2008). The songs, composed by the comparatively unheralded duo of Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, are especially strong: witty, even moving at times. However the synth-laced score by Jerry Goldsmith is surprisingly hit and miss. The film is not perfect. Ongoing gags about cross-dressing are driven into the ground and can't help but seem dated. The film also crafts an imposing villain in Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) it does not entirely know what to do with and unwisely keeps him apart from Mulan for too long.
Yet Mulan's real achievement lies in its delicate balancing act. While on the one hand embracing the 'cosy' conservatism inherent in its fairytale ending, the film ever so slightly critiques the rigidity of traditional Confucian values. Hinging on a daughter's overriding love for her father, the original tale is an ode to filial duty and patriotic pride (the father embodies the nation itself). However the Disney film has Mulan gradually realize her quest is as much about validating her own self-worth. Building to a climax wherein archaic gender politics form a literal barrier for its heroine to overcome, Mulan's legacy endures through recognizing you don't break through a male-dominated world by adopting male values, but by becoming a stronger woman.