Today Amanda a.k.a. @FuturePixarian, friend, massive supporter of the Disney online community, and lover of movies, joins This Happy Place Blog to weigh in on ‘underrated’ Disney films. I know you’ll enjoy her inspired piece on Disney’s Mulan…
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“She’s a woman. She’ll never be worth anything.”
It’s not unusual for a Disney film to have a rousing story of personal triumph or to feature a heroine rather than an a masculine figure. What is surprising is when a script allows for such crass judgements to be cast on someone who represents the truest of heroes. Besides the obvious ignorance of these words, they are made all the more fallacious when said by a character who just witnessed the valiant actions of the woman to whom he is referring. At this point of Mulan, the major events have already unfolded, the climatic battle is done, the film is almost over, and yet he still doesn’t believe that what she did was worthy of honor.
It shows just how oblivious people can be when it comes to greatness.
What happens after the line is spoken is almost just as unexpected; instead of directly addressing the speaker with more than just a threat of physical violence, the writing actually goes out of its way to ignore it. It expects the acceptance the public has for change to overwhelm the dissent of the minority. For what might be considered a mere “children’s movie”, Mulan certainly deals with some heavy issues, such as self-importance and gender stereotyping.
With these dramatic and powerful themes in a movie that did well at the box office (compared to films that were soon to follow) and was nominated for many awards (winning quite a few), you’re probably asking yourself why I would pick this particular film for a series looking back on underrated Disney films. My answer is a response to my own question: can a movie be commercially successful AND underrated?
Yes, I think it is possible.
While “Mulan” did gross enough to consider it a success, its characters are featured in the China pavilion in the World Showcase at Epcot, and it managed to merit its own direct-to-video sequel, a prestigious honor, I feel that time has worn out this film’s welcome in the minds of those who see it as only another addition to the expansive collection of Disney films. It has lost its luster in an age where only the highest-grossing (and longest running) films are remembered and revered as “cinematic masterpieces”.
I remember seeing this movie for the first time as a little girl in the comfort of a crowded playroom and being thoroughly entertained. It’s a fun movie that doesn’t take very long to pull you in; there are so many wonderful aspects. It has a strong female lead facing impressive challenges and supporting characters with humor continuing the tradition of anachronistic references. Not to mention, one of my favorite Disney songs, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You“, beautiful animation stylized with an Eastern flair, and a score that heightens the sense of majesty of this ancient kingdom.
War is imminent and the families of this land are preparing to send off one man from each home to fight for his country. The main character, a socially awkward young woman, who after failing to impress her match-maker and fulfill her duty as an honorable daughter to her parents, decides to take her father’s place and run away to join the army in fear that his physical ailments would prevent him from ever returning. The scene where she cuts her hair and puts on her father’s armor still feels incredibly inspired as the lighting and reflective surfaces (a recurring element) intensify the choice Mulan has made to strip herself of her feminine aesthetics and risk her own life for another.
The story is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a female warrior who had a distinguished military career and earned many honors for her service while never being discovered as a woman. As a Disney movie, certain liberties were taken and Fa Mulan, as she is called here, is eventually discovered and dishonorably cast out by her superiors. However, her successful attempt to thwart the enemy, the massively monstrous Huns, and protect her band of comrades saves her from the punishment of death. Even after the disgrace she experiences for simply being a woman, she continues to act out of pure loyalty to her brothers in arms and fights to protect them from the forces invading the imperial palace. The climactic showdown between Mulan and the leader of the Huns demonstrates combat techniques unfamiliar to female characters from any previous Disney film. Not only can she fight, but she is really good! Her transformation from a middle-class maiden to a full-fledged soldier is realized earlier when she is the first to complete a training exercise and inspires the camp of trainees to work harder to complete their courses.
Commonly mistaken as a member of the Disney Princess merchandise line, Mulan is a stand-alone character who rises beyond the call of duty to do what is right. Most Disney princesses act out of their own desires for freedom or romance, but Mulan has a obligation to protect and serve; she is a rebel, but for all the right reasons. Mulan is a fine role model for young female viewers, but the movie itself works as a reminder that being courageous, loyal, wise, and strong is the best reflection of a person’s inner beauty.
The notion that films must be drawn out over more than 120 minutes and cost more to produce than their recent predecessors is ridiculous. I refuse to accept an attitude of disdain for the films that try their best, even if they don’t hit every mark. This film does have its flaws, but that might be partly due to its production at the Florida-based animation studio rather than at the animation headquarters in Burbank, California. Newly-established at the time, the studio did manage to create a fine movie that I cherish as a childhood fancy, but it certainly has enough heart and humor to earn its place as an appreciated work of art. It maintains an earnest sense of self while also delivering light-hearted fun that’s a joy to watch.