Click to read Part 1 (Snow White), Part 2 (Cinderella), Part 3 (Aurora), Part 4 (Ariel), Part 5 (Belle), Part 6 (Jasmine), and Part 7 (Pocahontas).
I've been waiting to get to Mulan: I love talking about her character. Admittedly, when I first watched the 1998 film of Mulan in theatres (I went with cousins, and I remember this because I actually went to see very few Disney films or films in general in theatres), not much of it stuck with me. I have no idea if I liked it or not or for what reasons; I just don't remember anything from watching it back then. A couple of years later, though, I had a Disney storybook that had a chapter on Mulan, so my familiarity with the story was based more on that brief summary.
I give all of this backstory because I wanted to say that when I finally watched the movie again a couple of years or so ago, I really enjoyed it and really appreciated Mulan's character.
When describing the movie to someone else, I called it a combination of Pride and Prejudice and Divergent. You have something of a marriage plot in there, but it's different. The plot isn't about Mulan trying to prove that she doesn't need an arranged marriage. The concept of marriage is simply the setting: in Mulan's culture and time, a good marriage was her way of honoring her family. So while "becoming a good bride" doesn't come naturally to Mulan, she tries her hardest and she does genuinely want to do well: she isn't a rebel. She's simply a person. We, as moviegoers, don't need to see Mulan rebelling against the system because we don't have her system anymore. A marriage plot/setting handled well and in the right balance for a modern audience and a modern story (I realize that this is an old story, but from what I understand Disney heavily adapted it, hence why I call it a modern story).
I must also give a note about Mulan's relationship with her family. I praised Belle's good relationship with her father. Mulan has a father, a mother, and a grandmother--that's gold in the Disney princess world, which is so often filled with orphans or stepparents. And she loves and is loved by all her family. Not that this needs to be the case with every story, but it is nice to have a character who comes from a loving home. Part of the story, true, involves Mulan's father's realization about who his daughter is and the fact that she is precious to him exactly because of who she is. He is a proud man, and Mulan's outspokenness was sometimes difficult for him to accept. But he always loved his daughter and tried to express his love for her. I appreciate this because, once again, Mulan doesn't need to rebel against oppression or painful family ties or whatnot.
But wait, you say, isn't Mulan all about a girl's rebellion against the system?
Kind of. But not entirely.
Here's where my Divergent comparison comes in. Like Tris, Mulan enters a completely different culture when she takes her father's place in the Emperor's call for soldiers. She trades her lessons in being ladylike for lessons in war. All the while, she tries to hide the fact that she is a woman from the other men. So everything that she has tries to suppress she is now letting go: she tries to be loud and outspoken and tough rather than demure and meek and gentle. And in doing this, Mulan thrives. At first, yes, she struggles, but that is because she has never had reason to build up physical strength. Shang gives up on Mulan. But Mulan doesn't give up on herself. She is persistent in her training and she keeps it up until she can stand side by side with the rest of the soldiers. The irony of the song "To Be a Man" is that Shang is trying to whip his trainees into shape by calling them girls and saying that he wants to make them into men--but Mulan is a girl and not a man and yet she is able to excel in her training as much as the men are. What Mulan does is what a person can do when she is simply trying to complete a task, with no one looking at her as being this or that gender but simply as one person within a group.
I'm going to go out and say that, to me, this is more inspiring than showing a female character who is already athletic and tough and good at fighting or whatever else. This shows that if you want to be something or to do something, you can do it . . . by working hard to achieve it. You're not automatically something because you want to be. You have to work, you have to train, you have to have drive, you have to have discipline. Mulan is inspiring because she works hard at tasks. (She worked hard to become a good bride, too, you'll remember. She just found that she was better suited toward battle training.)
So you see, Mulan isn't really trying to rebel when she pretends to be a man in order to join the army. For one thing, she does it to help her father: she sees that he is getting older and has already been injured in battle before. The other men have sons to fight for them; Mulan is an only child, a daughter. So she decides that she still must do this to help her father. She is acting out of kindness and out of the desire to maintain the family honor--not to prove that, as a woman, she can be a soldier. If everything had gone according to plan, after all, then no one in the army would have known that Mulan was a woman. It is only Shang's respect for Mulan allows her to walk away from the illegal act. Which brings us to an interesting point.
If Mulan were rebelling against something, you could say that it's represented by Shang since he's her commander. But she respects him--and rebels don't really have that respect. Mulan respects Shang for trying to serve the Emperor and train these soldiers well, teaching them strength and discipline. By in turn earning Shang's respect back, Mulan saved herself when her identity was discovered and Shang decided to let her go. And I think this is a more important lesson to learn than rebellion. Yes, there are some things we need to defy or try to change, but sometimes the way that you make things better is to respect everyone involved and to take your steps one at a time.
. . . And now I remember that I've left out one other aspect of Mulan's character: her diversity. Continuing with the tradition of Jasmine and Pocahontas, Mulan is not a European princess in the traditional Medieval setting. She is a Chinese character in China whose speaking voice is done by a Chinese American actress. Her costumes, then, move away from the traditional Disney princess look to reflect her Chinese culture--and her situation (that is, she has a soldier's outfit).
One thing more. Mulan is the first Disney princess who is not a princess in any way or form. Her father is not a king or even royalty. Her love interest, Shang, is not a prince or a king or royalty: he's just military. Yet Mulan fits in with the Disney princesses--probably because her story is a story of self-discovery and a story of realizing how to express that self to the world. Snow White and Aurora faced the evils of the world, but characters like Belle and Mulan have to start the quest on the inside, have to realize first who they are before they can figure out how to show kindness and courage towards others. Mulan receives a positive princess rating from me, making that two in a row.