Critical analysis is essential part of art. Doubly so with writing. Triply so with movies. So, on to one of perhaps a drier blog post, but something quite interesting. This is my critical analysis of Mulan.
Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies, and probably one of the most underrated. It’s a surprisingly solid film with with fascinating takes on gender. I’m sure the gender bending is the reason I really love this movie. But there’s also the fact that’s is good too. And this:
Mulan has a textbook structure; three acts with each act hits its required mark. It’s got clever dialogue, fun music, every scene is important, but most of all, it has a clear theme. Sounds like a simple formula for success, yet, it’s surprisingly difficult like frying a perfect egg.
Technical Breakdown of Mulan
(using Shannon’s highly scientific method which is a hodgepodge of Syd Field, Blake Synder, and NOCCA. Also, all the borning stuff.)
Act 1: Establishes Mulan is a quirky, but smart girl (achieved though her “wake-up” sequence and through the musical number “Honor to Us All”). We also learn, in those very same scenes, that quirky smart girls aren’t what women should be in feudal China. (Thematic Conflict! Mulan vs Society) Act 1 addresses gender roles for women. This is the start of identity beyond gender theme. In a distant elsewhere, China is at war. This establishes the status quo – or life before the central conflict. This opening ten minutes has a hook because Mulan is a conflicted character. She wishes to bring honor to her family by fulfilling her role, but she ultimately fails. Her desire and failure gives her motive to change and propel the story forward. Act 1 ends when Mulan decides to fulfill her father’s conscription into the war (inciting incident). There are two musical numbers in Act 1.
Act 2: We see Mulan struggle with her new gender role, and the role of the military. New characters are introduced. She develops as a character, through a series of failures and achievements (primarily through “Make a Man out of You”), becoming one of the best soldiers in her unit. A romantic subplot, as well as a subplot reflective of Mulan through Mushu and Cric-kee, are introduced. Though most of this, gender roles are established from a masculine perspective. After the musical number “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” we reach the point of no return, where we discover the vicious Hun slaughter. Now, war ready, the regiment meets the huns on a snowy cliff , where Mulan, ever the oddball for she disobeys orders, almost single-handedly stops the invasion. The price of victory is the reveal of Mulan’s secret and her expulsion from the army. Mulan’s low point and blooming scene follows, when she discovers the Huns are not defeated, and she charges towards the capital to warn the Emperor.
Act 3: Opens with celebration. Tensions escalate as Mulan is ignored, and the Emperor is captured. In a stunning feat of plot and gender subversion, (and a reprise of “Man”) Mulan and her company (who help her because they respect her as a soldier, regardless of gender) infiltrate the palace and save the emperor. This plays off the gender roles established in both first and second an emphasizes the theme of identity beyond gender. In an unusual Disney movement, Mulan strikes the killing blow to Shan Yu. Mulan is recognized for her achievements as a person, rather than woman or man, by the emperor, resolving thematic conflict, and she returns home to her family, resolving the theme of identity. The romantic subplot is also resolved, though some ambiguous courtship.
Mulan also has some notable Disney troupes: a companion animal that serves as comic relief, a distinctive setting (China), a magical element, and hybrid musical. Unlike some Disney movies, Mulan fully utilizes these elements.
Mushu arrives in Act II to aide Mulan in her adventure, though more often, provides a comic foil. He further complicates things for Mulan except for the end, when he finally provides her with the “spark” she needed to defeat Shan Yu. Mushu becomes intrinsic to the plot, especially, because he’s the one that propels the troops towards the destroyed encampment, and ultimately sets them onto the path on the mountains. He fills a subplot reflective of the theme of identity, by demonstrating a different path to oneself – giving him solid characterization. Mushu wants to be a great spirit. To achieve that, he must help Mulan. Of course, he admits to her, that his motives are selfish, and that he is a selfish creature. Cric-kee is Mushu’s companion, and foils Mushu with is “lucky” identity.
Besides historical significance, the China setting is greatly reflective in the artwork, and in the concept of honor. It’s also an interesting setting to bring up gender roles, since it is well defined in Asian cultures. Additionally, by placing it in a setting that is not European, Mulan plays the sci-fi trick: set it in space, and it’s not really about the real world. Set it in China, and it’s not really reflective of Western culture (though, it is). Additionally, the concept of “honor” is better set in a Eastern culture. For without honor, Mulan wouldn’t be in quite the predicament she’s in.
The magical element is very subtle in the film, and adds to the “legendary” tone that is Mulan. The magic is restricted in that of Mushu and the ancestors. It’s also a play on cultural Chinese beliefs, and does not hold much bearing on the entire plot. However, it adds a child-like element to the story. Children indulge in fantasy, and like all good fairy tale stories, need that element to be able to relate it to a wider scale.
In an interesting note, the musical element of Mulan works exceptionally well. The music is accompanied by montages that propel the plot forward, often revealing character development, and even advance the plot. In the “Honor” song, there is a brief moment where Mulan wins a Go game (or game of similar nature) indicating that she is quite smart, but not very feminine since the players are men. In, “Man” she is actually expelled from her camp, though, she uses it to succeed at the impossible task given to her by Li. Later, the reprise “Man” is used in a wry context as the solider dress like women, driving home the gender identity plot.
Yet, Mulan isn’t as iconic as say Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid. It’s most likely a case of timing. It followed two lackluster Disney films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. It was beat out in almost all areas for awards, and if I remember correctly, the late 90s were a bit of a decline for Disney. The Musical was in decline, and anti-heroes on the rise. It’s gender-bending could also be a factor. I’m not entirely sure why it seems to be less than other Disney film, but for me, it’s one of my all time favorites.
Mulan kinda does everything right. Every action in the movie is explained. Every scene given importance and depth. Issues of identity and gender are raised. All characters grow and expand, and are ultimately victorious. In terms of traditional model, Mulan is an excellent film to strive for.