I really like Mulan. it may be one of my three favorite disney movies from the nineties and i believe it is a bit underrated.
Mulan is an interesting movie to talk about. if you ask about it, a number of people will probably respond “oh yeah. the one about girl power” and how it hammer down the aesop of “girls can be heroes too!” and…admitely, there is some basis on that…
warning, this article assumes you have some general idea of the plot of the movie
But if you look at it closely, it is actually one very good example of visual storytelling at it’s best, with strong emphasis in “show, don’t tell” don’t believe me? let’s take a look. starting with the title character herself.
Mulan is one of those characters whose personality is shown a little “out of the mold” energic and a little bit rebellious with how things are supposed to be versus how she thinks they should be. but probably her most worth mentioning traits (her cleverness and resourcefulness and good heart) are actually shown in more subtle ways. The song “you will bring honor to us all” is a great example of this.
It is in moments like this, that have NOTHING to do with the ceremony and she just does for the hell of it and are pretty short, that you can see her more comfortable and confident.
And it’s not like she makes a fool of herself in this scenes, to the contrary, she shows admirable traits such as intelligence and a strong sense of right and wrong.
This ARE traits worth of praise, but that the song ignores to speak instead of how girls must be “calm, obedient and work fast-paced” (infact, the scene with the kids happens as the song speaks of how boys must serve the empire by fighting and girls by having childrens). But if you look at Mulan, you can see how uncomfortable she is with the whole thing.
she doesn’t like the make up, she doesn’t like the dresses, she doesn’t like all these people touching her to make her “prettier” or how they speak of the joy she must be having. at one point, she even makes a slight change to her appearence that makes her more comfortable.
Also, if you pay attention, you will realize that Mulan is silent for most of this song, she remains silent for most of it, further showing she herself does not identify with this whole thing everyone is up in arms about and doesn’t want to be there.
However, when does she sing? JUST after her grandmother (one of the few characters in the movie to support Mulan’s rebellious tendencies) adds a few additions to her appearence.
We can also see it is the only moment in the dress-up scenes where Mulan is actually comfortable, she is smiling and seems genuinely happy and grateful to her grandmother. Then she sings about not wanting to screw up and ruining her family’s reputation.
Also check out the lyrics.
First the bath scene:
We’ll have you washed and dried
Primped and polished
Till you glow with pride
Trust my recipe for instant bride
You’ll bring honor to us all
It’s bassically saying that Mulan herself can only be worth praise with all this make-up and pretty dresses they are making her wear.
Now let’s go check Gran’s lines:
An apple for serenity
A pendant for balance
Beads of jade for beauty
You must proudly show it
This time, the lyrics do not refer to her “glowing with pride” (IE, her appearence make her worth praise) but that SHE must be proud.
Afterwards, we have Mulan’s only contribution to the song:
Hear my plea
Help me not to make a
fool of me
And to not uproot
my family tree
Keep my father standing tall
She is not speaking of herself, but rather of her family and what may happen if she fails now. She is clearly not comfortable doing this, she doesn’t want to do it, but she is doing so because she loves her family that much.
And because she remained silent all this time, this moment is all the more meaningful. This day is supposed to be about her, but we only hear what she feels at that moment.
Now let’s jump to the start of the training montage when Mulan joins the army. the one with the weights that represent “strenght & discipline”
we are told that you need both to reach the arrow at the top and no more. the next scene is the recruits trying and failing miserably reach the top. But when Mulan is told to go away and decides to try once more (and after failing…again)
Cut during the climax, when emperor is kidnapped and everyone is trying to get the door open to get inside. we cut to Mulan realizing they will not get in time.
later on, when she runs away from Shan-Yu
Mulan’s skills are showcased not with dialogue, but through animation alone. No line is spoken, no mention is done, we are shown Mulan is able to quickly find solutions to problems all by herself and the mental process it takes.
The movie also uses the animation as foreshadowing as well as setting some chekhov’s guns. for example:
but one thing is foreshadowing and other thing is the story proper. how does the story handle it? first of all, i would like to mention the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For”. it is a happy song the soldier’s in Mulan’s troop sing as they prepare to go join the war.
After this scene we have the characters go silent as they go through the ruins of the place. very little dialogue is spoken as we see the ruins.
and then there is this scene:
This stablishes beyond doubt that this was the villain’s doing. However, you can also see the mental image Mulan must be having right now. Remember this scene?
Finally, when Mulan finally returns home and to her father
There are also more scenes I did not mention and small details you may not notice at first. Like the fact Mulan never uses her sword to fight, a metaphor of how she defeats Shan Yu without answering his call for blood, or the fact the movie quietly shows Shang learning the truth about Mulan.
Some may have problems with how the message of empowerement is handled (and others may have problems because the Mulan from real life was different). But if anything, i think the movie is one great example of animation as a visual medium. letting the images speak for themselves instead of having dialogue at every oportunity.
And while there are moments the dialogue is heavy, those silent moments just work very well.
Also, you gotta love the emperor.
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