Minority opinion time. Mulan is a really good movie. You know, the Disney one set in China about the girl who pretends to be a boy to keep her disabled father from having to be killed or dishonored when he receives a conscription notice? It gets ignored, I think, because it came out around the same time Disney animation started actively working to destroy itself. It came out in between Hercules and Tarzan, so I can’t blame people who wrote it off along with all of its peers.
Unlike so many of the other Disney films of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Mulan‘s got an actual plot and characters with personality. It has a legit villain in Miguel Ferrer’s yellow-eyed Hun badass, mostly non-annoying side characters and some of Disney’s best design work. Yes, it’s also the one where Eddie Murphy is a dragon named Mu Shu, but watch how well that character works despite how out of place it is. Mu Shu should sink the film, but he comes out as kind of likable. The same can be said of the songs, which are not particularly great but don’t feel perfunctory like the ones in Hercules.
Mulan herself is perhaps Disney’s strongest female character in their entire filmography. When she struggles to fight with the men, it’s less because she’s a woman than that she’s never done anything like this before in her life. By the end of the film, she’s fighting with and outsmarting Hun warlords and saving the empire without a boyfriend coming to her rescue. In Mulan, the heroine rescues the hero. Even though Mulan kinda sorta becomes a princess at the end of the film like every Disney heroine, she earns it by saving the Empire, not by marrying a prince. She comes home not with a dress but a sword as a trophy of her victory. Mulan kicks ass.
Mulan is the film I wish Disney made every time up to bat. It has character development, a great story without the pathetic emotional manipulation Disney tends to trade in and the thing by which I’ve always judged a great Disney film against the rest: a fantastic climax. Look at, say, Hercules, which isn’t a horrible film by any measure. But look at how it ends: The Titans beat up everyone, then Hercules gets a power-up that lets him easily slay them. Mulan ends with a well paced action scene, ending with Mulan decisively beating a stronger opponent not through luck, but cunning.
Mulan should be on the list of great Disney films, but I fear it’s too far off the beaten path to get recognized. For all people’s complaining about Disney movies having too many princesses and not enough role models, I see an awful lot of frilly lace and not that many Chinese swords.