Analysis: Mulan and Visual Storytelling

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…

“Asshole, she literally just made explode the villain of the movie!”

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.

She gives quick look and wins the game in a “blink and you’ll miss it moment”

No line is spoken by mulan in this scene as the song continues on.

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”

Pictured: Mulan failing to use 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)

You can see the mental work going on as she figures out the solution

also, i have to say, i just love this shot here

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.

Once again, the animation shows the mental process as she figures out an alternate way out.

later on, when she runs away from Shan-Yu


Running away and trying to think something on the fly. one quick look at the tower and she immediatly cooks up a plan image


Makes sure it will work
It does

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:

Here we see Mulan’s conflict with herself
Shortly after, the shot is repeated, this time with the sword of Mulan’s dad as she decides to leave in a clear callback to the previous scene.


However, the scene ALSO stablishes the sword being reflective and allows Mulan to see the mountain she uses to stop the huns. subtle foreshadow

You can see Mulan was covering her wound as she was running away

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.

Look how happy they are! (Minus Mulan)
and then
Is at this moment the music stops completely to let sink in the reality of war in sheer contrast with the scene just seconds ago. This song may complement the story the best because of this scene.

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:

“we should return the doll”
The exact same doll

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?

No line is spoken by mulan in this scene and the song continues on.

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.

You are fired

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