The “Disney Princess” mythos is a genre as restrictive as it is globally-superpowered, but in terms of the Official Princess Movie with the most patriarchy-subverting politics, I think it’s 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 has an argument too, but for my taste, the underlying colonization-conquest story is so far outside of Classic Disney’s natural lane you kinda wonder what they’re even trying to say, and also the songs in POCAHONTAS are not my jam.)
They’re coming out with a live-action MULAN next year, directed by Niki Caro, who is not Asian as far as I can keyword, but she made WHALE RIDER, which is a purty durn good movie. I could quibble over the question of which filmmakers get to make Asian American movies (oddly, it’s fewer Asian Americans than you’d think) but A) WHALE RIDER is unusually great and narratively relevant to Mulan, B) intersectionality happens and C) I’d much rather quibble with why is it that Disney’s MULAN is not the most beloved of all the Disney Princess Things when it’s clearly the best one of them all?!?
Look, again, the whole genre is not my favorite escapism, with its weird-wobbly ideas of inclusion (Is Bianca from THE RESCUERS a Disney Princess? Are women characters obtained by Disney via corporate merger more or less in Club Princess than Bianca?) but I’m reading the messaging, and the messengers. As opposed to the inexplicably more-treasured LITTLE MERMAID (“If I’m good, maybe God will give me feet?”) and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (“If I’m pretty and kind enough, maybe the big monster/misunderstood prince won’t kill me?”), both finely crafted entertainments they may be, but HOLY CRAP is Hua (or Fa) Mulan’s story more dramatically active than that shit. As per the very very old Chinese folk ballad, Mulan is 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. Oh yeah, and then she goes to the front line of the war. It’s as far from SLEEPING BEAUTY as it is close to the premise of THE HUNGER GAMES, with a sickly dad instead of Prim, and Katniss doesn’t have to pretend to be a dude.
And yet, for reasons mystifying to my non-kid-having self, LITTLE MERMAID is the one that gets most talked about, to the point where the casting of an African-American kid actor as Ariel made the big “splash” around the internets this week, because it turns out a lotta people are literally insane about that LITTLE MERMAID movie. (Which I get only enough to know that I can’t even; the mermaid can be Black or Brown or Asian or Ukrainian, dudes, the one thing she can’t be is as cool as Hua Mulan.) 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 may be Ming-Na’s best performance, in spite of the long-after-the-fact scandal where Netflix forgot to credit the Asian people who starred in the Asian movie.
(And plus, Eddie Murphy voicing the funny dragon? A little unconventional, a little code-breaking, and at this point, feels like Eddie Murphy living his best life.)
Some could reasonably argue Disney Mulan’s music is not as memorable as the other films in her cohort, but I’d differ: I mean, Stevie Wonder sings on the closing credit song, for Pete’s sake. And “Reflection,” as sung by both Lea Salonga and 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 humans to hit. Anecdotally, I note that “Reflection” is a touchstone (pun intended) for some queer/trans folk who identify strongly with the dual/difficult identifying of oneself. From the same dataset of karaoke bar confessions (as I say, it’s anecdotal), “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” also emerges as a terrific song to sing along to, both ironic and empowering.
Because it’s an intersectional story, both Chinese-originated and foreseeing-feminist, I maintain that American Mulan 2020 might be a nice learning moment for everybody. The Disney faithful will have to grasp that the animated Disney thing is just one version of an oft-told, specifically Chinese story which set the table for Kingston’s “Woman Warrior” and umpteen prescient Michelle Yeoh movies; Asian America gets to confront the difficult intersection of feminist progress and gender stereotyping as it uniquely affects the AAPI community; we all get to look into the mirror, so to speak. And yes, with time’s benefit we can see how Disney was being cute in the corporate way of “checking two boxes” while (I grumpily reiterate) Lil Mermaid and Basic Belle & The Beast check NO progressive boxes. Mulan’s core story, because it is so ahead of its time and thus adaptive to new contexts, is just way better than either of those flicks.
The real deal is, it’s exceptionally good stories that actually move the needle on representation, on open-mindedness, on all the squad goals that progressive-minded artists care about. (Thank you, THE MATRIX, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, BLACK PANTHER.) For Non-Drawn MULAN to offer a definitively Asian cast (re)telling one of our most enduring legends, featuring Asian-Asian and Asian-American actors spanning a few generations, with Chinese-rooted people mainly (but not exclusively) playing the Chinese characters? These are significant steps for Asian America. Not so much for China, because China has its own film tradition, and China is not the place where most Asian Americans live. We all know that…right?
I didn’t wanna plug the official video for “True To Your Heart” because it kinda makes me want to barf. Just as the instrumental arrangement of the “Reflection” melody in the MULAN 2020 trailer kinda makes me want to joy-cry. And Rosalind Chao, and Tzi Ma, too.
And I don’t mean to over-gush because the trailer weaves in a piece of my personal-favorite Disney song. There are countless ways that live-action MULAN could still go wrong despite its very promising creative team, but as of right now, happily ever after.