To be fair, it’s a really limited genre, but it’s also no contest: MULAN is by far the most progressive-minded cel-animated Disney Princess film, while also performing its essential sedative-hypnotic function on your child’s developing emotional vocabulary. (POCAHONTAS argues for a distant second, but the underlying genocide story is so far our of Disney’s natural lane you kinda wonder what they’re really talking about, and also the songs in POCAHONTAS are wack.)
As opposed to the inexplicably more-beloved LITTLE MERMAID (“Maybe if I’m good, God will give me feet!”) or BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (“If I’m beautiful and kind enough, maybe the giant fanged monster won’t kill me! And oh look, it turns out the giant fanged monster is a good guy underneath it all; you just don’t know him like I do.”) MULAN is essentially the story of a young girl who volunteers to join the army so her sickly father won’t get conscripted into it; except women of this time can’t join the army, so she has to cross-dress and adopt a male persona just so she can get into the grueling training program. It’s kind of the same starting premise as THE HUNGER GAMES, with a sickly dad instead of Prim, and Katniss doesn’t have to pretend to be a dude.
If MULAN had been about white folks instead of Chinese people, would it be recognized as the superior proto-feminist kid-tranquilizer it obviously is? I have wondered. It might be Ming-Na’s best performance, despite the fact that Netflix forgot to credit the Asian people who were in the Asian movie. I mean, Stevie Wonder sings on the closing credit song, for Pete’s sake. And “Reflection,” sung by Lea Salonga or Christina Aguilera, is one of Disney’s finest ballads, perhaps under-recognized ’cause it’s got that one note that is just a little too hard for normal people to hit. For comic relief, it’s got Eddie Murphy voicing a funny dragon, and c’mon, at this point that’s pretty much Eddie Murphy living his best life.
They’re coming out with a live-action MULAN at some point, directed by Niki Caro, who is not ethnically Asian, but she did made WHALE RIDER, which is a purty durn good movie.
There’ve been some complaints about potential bisexual erasure based on how the character Li Shang is portrayed, but I’d say it’s the wrong place to pick a battle, because, um, Asian men are the most sexually-erased type of person in film by a wide margin; Asian women are subject to a converse but equally insidious form of sexual stereotyping basically whenever the word “asian” is typed on the internet; so could we try to triage our media-representation problems here? There are a LOT of ways that live-action MULAN could still go wrong despite a very promising creative team, and Li Shang’s orientation (so to speak) is pretty low on my list of worries in a world where the Karate Kid reboot was set in CHINA. **
(**good reboot; idiotic title. If you don’t know why it’s idiotic, please look it up.)