Published June 1, 1998
You knew that Mulan, the latest extrusion from the Satanic Mills of the Disney animation shop, had reached its intended audience when you saw the headline of Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times: “A Warrior, She Takes on Huns and Stereotypes.” Someone ought to do a study on what it is that makes a quondam manufactory of children’s cinema into a feminist consciousness- raising workshop. I suspect it is something to do with the fact that Americans have always had roughly equal contempt for education and for unmarried females, and so there is a long tradition of entrusting the former to the latter and paying no further attention to either—at least until the kids are old enough to play high school sports. But while we were looking the other way, the old-fashioned schoolmarm became a feminist harridan—a fact which Disney recognized a decade or so ago when it decided to ingratiate itself with this creature.
The result has been such dismal exercises in feminist propaganda as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas. To the number of such exercises now must be added Mulan which, as I say, is much more intended for schoolmarms like Janet Maslin (whose only stricture against the film is that “For all of Mulan’s courage and independence in rebelling against the matchmakers, this is still enough of a fairy tale to need Mr. Right”) than it is for the kiddies themselves, who continue to flock to these dreadful movies for reasons unfathomable to me. Perhaps it is because their divorced fathers are all desperate to find any movie to take them to which does not have steamy sex scenes in it. Disney is the Microsoft of the kiddie-movie. It’s either Mulan or another trip to the zoo.
Mulan (voice of Ming-Na Wen for speaking and Lea Salonga for singing) is a noble girl about to be married off, but for the fact that she disgraces herself before the matchmaker. She claims to be unhappy at the outrage this is to “the family honor,” but we soon see that her understanding of honor is essentially that of a Valley Girl. When the Huns invade and her father gets his draft notice, he prepares to go to war even though he is old and unwell. “It is an honor to serve my country and emperor,” he says.
Mulan replies with a shake of her pretty head, “So you’ll die for honor?”
Well, yes. That’s the general idea. But, presumably aware of where she is, she knows better than her father there are no actual deaths in Disney-warfare—or if there are they are off-stage and never involve the heroes—and so finds it easy to steal the old man’s call-up papers and report for duty disguised as a boy. When Mulan, alone of all the Chinese Army, thinks of the clever idea of shooting off the top of a mountain and causing an avalanche that buries the advancing Hun host, we see the snow falling and engulfing the army, but no signs of death. On the contrary, long after they must have been buried alive, we see the Hun leader and several of his key lieutenants emerging from the snow blanket apparently none the worse for the experience.
She has saved the army and its young general Mr Right (see above), who’s called Shang (B.D. Wong, speaking and Donny Osmond, singing), but because she is a girl and discovered to be one when she is wounded, she is almost put to death for “high treason” and “the ultimate dishonor.” Shang spares her only because she has already saved his life and so he owes her hers. She pleads that “I did it to save my father; it was the only way, believe me.”
Don’t believe her. She herself eventually acknowledges that “Maybe I didn’t do it for my father; maybe I did it for me”—so that, as she says, she could look in the mirror and see someone who did things right. But of course it goes much deeper than that. The feminist self-esteem argument is only the beginning. As in the other films in the current series, dating back to The Little Mermaid, the real point of it is to mock the heroic with some chatty, streetwise little animal-sidekick whose provenance in our own day and consequent incongruence in the exotic times and places where the films are set is apparently seen as an endless source of amusement by the cretins who write this drivel.
Here the sidekick is Mushu (voice of Eddie Murphy) a diminutive dragon who has somehow disgraced himself and is trying to work his way back into the good graces of his fellow household gods. That he is obviously no kind of dragon known to mythology but Eddie Murphy, professional funny man, is precisely the point of including him. Merely by being there, he makes the spoiled children of television-besotted America feel superior to the people who first wrote down these silly old Chinese legends. The sense of awe and wonder in the face of the unfamiliar, once the point of children’s stories, is abolished — just as making ostensible battle less sanguinary than a video game helps to remove all sense of the momentous and terrible from the tales of war that have traditionally fascinated boys.
It is interesting to ponder the implications of the fact such tales must apparently make warfare easy and comfortable and anodyne and (of course) completely false as a necessary preliminary to the introduction of girls as heroes.