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Oh hey, here’s a nice uncontroversial question: Is Mulan feminist?
To which of course the answer is IT’S A TRAP YOU FOOL RUN!!!
You see, the question presupposes that everyone agrees on what a feminist movie is, and that you can even have a feminist movie in the first place and you’d be surprised how little agreement there is on these points.
Now as to whether Mulan is feminist, personally, I say “Yeah, sure”. It centres its story on a female protagonist whose story is treated as being of equal or greater importance to those of the male characters and it doesn’t reinforce any misogynist tropes. Boom. Let’s go out for ribs. But there are differing schools of thought.
For example, when Fury Road (a movie that, for my money, wears its feminist politics as openly and proudly as a movie can while still working in its own right as a narrative) came out, Anita Sarkeesian claimed that it couldn’t be considered feminist because the main characters still resolved their problems with violence. In an action movie.
Which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that the only way a movie could succeed at being feminist would be if it failed utterly as a movie. Which…no.
So for the sake of argument, let’s accept that Mulan (as much as it can be given that it’s a movie that’s enjoyable and therefore a tool of the patriarchy) is feminist. But Mulan is not. By which I mean, the character herself should not be considered feminist because she lives in a pre-industrial, pre-mass literacy honour culture where anything even remotely resembling modern feminism is not only unknown but literally impossible. And here’s the thing that I think people often miss about this character. She doesn’t dress up as a man and join the army to give the middle finger to the expectations and traditions of her culture, but to honour them. Let me explain.
Mulan’s father teaches her that the three most important things in life are:
- Respecting her ancestors.
- Protecting her family.
- Safeguarding her family’s honour.
Now, ideally these three priorities should be in alignment. But when Fa Zhou is called up to serve in the Imperial Army, those three priorities are suddenly in competition. If Mulan lets her father go to war, she will be respecting his wishes (Respecting her ancestors) and ensuring that the family’ honour is intact, but she will not be protecting her family because her father will almost certainly die. But, if she somehow prevents him from going she will be protecting her family but disrespecting her father and bringing shame on the family. Mulan’s dressing up as a man and joining the army in her father’s place, while seemingly staggeringly transgressive, is really the only way Mulan has of resolving this paradox and ensuring that all three of her obligations are met. This is why Mulan is brilliant and why Mulan is brilliant. It gives us a story that is progressive and inspiring to a modern audience, but is still rooted very much in the culture and Imperial Han milieu of the heroine (or, y’know, the Disneyfied version of it at least). It gets to eat its cake and have it. This is why Mulan is my favourite Disney princess along (along with Moana, who has a similar story). She’s not about adventure in the great wide somewhere, she’s the “get shit done” Princess. She’s not riding out there upsetting gender norms for poops and giggles, she’s doing it because she’s got a job to do and she’s going to do it, dammit. And if a couple of hundred thousand Huns got to get put in the ground, well, eggs and omelettes.
Lotta people don’t get that. Some of them got together and made a movie.
Alright, so the movie begins shortly after the last one with Mushu (Eddie Murphy) being grudgingly inducted back onto his pedestal by the Fa family ghosts. And I have to say, kudos to the studio for being able to get Murphy back for a straight to DVD…
So this guy is actually Mark Moseley, a voice actor whose other credits include Shrek 2, The Nutty Professor and I Spy. As you’ve probably guessed from those movies (except for I Spy, because you forgot that existed, didn’t ya?), Moseley is the guy you call when you need Eddie Murphy to record a line in post production but don’t want to pay Eddie Murphy a bajillion dollars for one line. Now, I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the dodgy racial politics of a white guy impersonating a black guy voicing a red dragon. Murphy’s schtick can come across as a problematic on its own so when a white guy starts doing an impression of it, yeesh. But…credit where credit’s due, it is a very accurate impression and I actually had to double check IMDb just to be sure that it really wasn’t a moonlightling Murphy. Anyway, in this scene Mushu lords it over the grumbling ancestors and forces them to blow him…a jacuzzi bath.
So this makes no goddamn sense. Mushu lost his job and through a fluke he was able to get it back. But he still works for the ancestors, right? So why are they being his butt monkeys despite the fact that they clearly hate his guts? Is it like double indemnity? They fired him once so they can’t fire him again? Has he become immune to firing? Well anyway, Mulan 2 continues the noble tradition of Snow White by introducing its villain in the opening scene.
No for real. Mushu is the villain of this deal. It’s like a reverse Return of Jafar where the good comedic sidekick from the first movie becomes the primary antagonist of the second. Now, on its own, that’s at least an interesting direction to take. Who among us, I ask you, hasn’t wanted to see a Little Mermaid sequel where Flounder finally snaps and goes on a killing spree?
And Mushu certainly would fit that kind of role better than most comedy sidekicks. He was always a more selfish, mean-spirited character than your typical princess-prop (which worked, as Mulan was the most selfless of the princesses). Plus that design. Remember the first scene where he appears? He’s downright creepy.
So yeah, Mushu could absolutely work as a villain. The problem is, the creators don’t seem to realise that that’s what they’ve done.
Anyway, I suppose now is a good time to talk about the animation and it’s…sigh…fine.
It’s not bad at all, actually. Not close to the original (do I even need to say that?) but there’s none of the awkward sticky motion of, say, Hunchback 2. The characters don’t move with the same fluid naturalism as the original but instead there’s a pleasingly crisp, almost Warner-Bros esque snappiness to their motion that I quite like.
In the Fa household, Granny Fa has started a betting pool on when Shang is going to propose to Mulan, the girl who he thought was a dude literally one month ago and that’s a stable foundation for a relationship right there. Actually, how about we take a moment to consider how the various romances in the Disney canon actually work as romances?
So firstly, let’s disregard Elsa and Moana because they’re strong independent women who don’t need no man. Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty treat romance as a plot point. We don’t really get to see the relationship develop in any meaningful way, we just have to take it on faith that they’re in love now because the credits are rolling. With Ariel and Eric we get to see more of the main couple actually being a couple but it’s more like an adolescent crush than a serious thing (although it’s absolutely adorable). Belle and Beast represent the first time a romantic relationship is actually portrayed as the heart of the narrative and we get a much mature (and sometimes quite dark) portrayal of a relationship. Aladdin and Jasmine are more of a “Howard Hawks screwball comedy” kinda couple, ditto Herc and Meg. Pocahontas and John Smith we’re just going to pretend never happened who are they I don’t know someone’s talking nonsense. But Shang and Mulan are different because they have one of the most interesting relationships in the whole canon and the only hint that they will become a couple is in the very last seconds of the movie. Prior to that it’s the type of relationship that’s normally reserved for two male characters; it goes “You’re a screw up rookie, you’ve earned my respect rookie, you betrayed me, rookie, you regained my trust, rookie, you can be my wingman anytime, rookie, you’re giving me strange feeling in my pants, rookie.” And that’s fascinating. And honestly, if there was any couple in the Disney canon where a good story could be told about what happens after Happily Ever After, it would be these two. Mulan 2 is not like Hunchback 2. I don’t think there was ever going to be a good Hunchback 2. But a good Mulan 2 might have been possible. There’s some interesting ideas here, they’re just badly executed.
Anyway one thing I do like is that there hasn’t been a reset button. Mulan, the Death Who Walks, is now a big effing deal recognised as the hero saved China and treated as such and that’s cool. We first see her teaching some local girls some moves.
Like its predecessor, Mulan 2 thinks it might want to be a musical but doesn’t want to tie itself down so it has a measly three songs. The first of these is Lesson Number One which is a threadbare little thing that never settles on a consistent tone or melody but does have some very nice singing by Lea Salonga as Mulan’s singing voice so I can’t work up any real hate for it. Shang arrives and we get the proposal which is actually handled very nicely. We see the two of them from a distance in the garden and don’t hear anything until Mulan squeals with joy and jumps on Shang. And then Granny Fa, who’s been watching the whole thing, calls back to the house “She said yes!”
At first Mushu is delighted because he figures this will give him a status boost with the ancestors but then he learns that when Mulan marries she’l become part of Shan’s family and Mushu will no longer be her guardian and will lose his pedestal. And so Mushu decides that he has to break them up.
And it’s not even that he would miss Mulan, he is actually going to torpedo his best friend’s engagement for a fucking shelf.
Mulan and Shang are summoned to the Imperial Palace by the Emperor. Before they go, Li and Zhou (who’ve been having doubts about Mulan and Shang because they’re so different) give them Yin and Yang necklaces that they both wear and which they both got from their great, great grandparents. Wait a minute…they both had great great grandparents who gave them one half of a set of Yin Yang necklaces? That seems like a pretty big coincidence. Either that or…
Mulan, Shang, Mushu and Cri-kee arrive at the palace where the Emperor tells them that Mongol forces are rising and that they’re hopelessly outnumbered.
Excuse me what?
HOW CAN YOU BE OUTNUMBERED?! YOU’RE CHINA!!!
Shang says that he and Mulan will lead a preemptive strike and wage a massive war against the Mongols but the Emperor is all “Whoah, whoah, we do not have the animation budget for that, cool your jets”. Instead the Emperor is going to win this war not with violence, but with some sweet lovin’. To wit; the Emperor is going to marry off his three daughters to the Prince of Qui Gong to secure an alliance that will deter the Mongols from attacking. Because the Emperor is such a drama queen, he also says that his advisors have told him that if the marriages don’t take place the alliance will crumble and all of China will be destroyed so that’s a fairly shaky geo-political alliance right there. Plus, surely marrying one princess would be enough to secure an alliance? Why is he marrying off all three? Besides, its bigamy.
Anyway, the movie then decides to mess itself by having Mulan be appalled by the very idea saying “An arranged marriage?!”
You know what Mulan is like? She’s like that chick who turned vegan just two weeks ago and now can’t BELIEVE that anyone could eat meat because it is MURDER. Literally a month ago she was going to the matchmaker to be married off because this is Imperial China and that’s what you do dammit. And now she’s swanning around everywhere saying “Oh you should totally marry for love. I don’t know why anyone would conform to millennia of tradition in a time and place when the modern conception of individual liberty and romance hasn’t yet been formulated.” The Emperor tells her that his daughters are perfectly willing to marry to save their country and says “Apology accepted” because yeah, that was pretty fucking dumb. The Emperor asks how many men Shang will need and he says he needs three because he’s got Mulan and she can massacre entire armies so they just need three guys to help carry the bags.
We now cut to Yao, Ling and Chien-Po who’ve just been thrown out of the matchmaker’s house for being hideous unmarriageable freaks. We now get the best song in the movie, but only because it’s A Girl Worth Fighting For but with new lyrics. They’re not bad lyrics though. Each of the trio opine about the kind of girl they’re looking for and then get picked up Shang and Mulan for the new mission.
So they pick up the princesses who are named Mei, Ting Ting and Su and are voiced by Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh and Lauren Tom (and I know there aren’t a lot of parts for Asian actresses but Jesus) and they set out. Mulan is sad to think of the three princesses in an arranged marriage and Shang says “Not everyone can be as lucky as us.”
Um, understatement of the DYNASTY. They are possibly the first love match in the history of China. And they are such dicks about it too. Look at them, riding around the countryside all “Ha! We love each other and no one forced us to get married! Later losers! Enjoy your horrible loveless matches!”
Meanwhile the princesses are starting to develop feeling for the comic relief but then they remember that they’ve been promised in marriage and so they just start sadly fanning themselves.
Mei talks to Mulan and asks her how she got into drag kinging and Mulan says that when torn between her duty and her heart she discovered that her duty was to her heart and no no no no…
Mulan’s duty isn’t to her heart, it’s to her DUTY! GAWD.
Anyway, Mei is quite happy to learn that the morally right thing to do is always the thing that you want to do (that is the gist of what she’s saying, we all get that?) and runs off to infect her sisters. Meanwhile, Mushu has has completed his journey to the dark side and sets about trying to break up Mulan and Shang.
These attempts, incidentally, include attempted murder. No really, he siccs a bear on Shang and that’s never addressed. Cartoon sidekicks, man. When they break, they break bad.
Mushu even accidentally (riiiiiiight) pushes the princesses’s carriage over a cliff, causing the party to lose most of their supplies. With time running short, Shang decides they’ll have to take a shortcut through a dangerous mountain pass while Mushu decides that this is the perfect opportunity to pray on the couple’s frayed nerves and get them to snap at each other and this fucking guy right here, this fucking guy.
Anyway, they do have an argument and its one of those arguments that manages to make both parties look like idiots. Shang wants to go through bandit country but Mulan sensibly suggests following the river which should lead eventually to a settlement. But Shang says that the river is not on the map and ergo does not exist so Mulan breezily suggests they wing it which is what you say when you’re on a jaunt in the country and not on a vital diplomatic mission upon which the fates of hundreds of millions of people are resting. Anyway, Yao shows them another, safer path and the two make up and hug and they end up getting the necklaces tangled that they got from Mulan’s weird inbred parents.
Meanwhile the princesses have realised that they’re in love with the three soldiers and sing Like Other Girls, a song about wanting to be free to do what they want like other girls excuse me what?!
WHAT OTHER GIRLS?! WHAT OTHER GIRLS GET TO DO THESE THINGS YOU’RE SINGING ABOUT?! THIS IS IMPERIAL CHINA! THIS IS THE PLACE WHERE GENERATIONS OF CHINESE WOMEN HAD TO MUTILATE THEIR FEET BECAUSE ONE RANDOM DUDE HAD A FOOT FETISH!
ARE YOU FUCKING HIGH?!!
Meanwhile, Chien-Po is outside the tent and hears the sound of three beautiful women who’ve been cloistered their entire lives and have no frame of references for male beauty standards.
Meanwhile, Mushu uses his Disney sidekick powers for evil by doing the old “talk to someone in their sleep to plant an idea in their head like it’s frickin’ Inception” trick.
He follows up his Timothy the Mouse impression with a little Iago, impersonating Mulan to make it seem like she’s trash talking Shang in front of the princesses. This gets Shang seriously pissed and he confronts Mulan and after a huge row she decides that maybe they’re not right for each other. She has bigger things to worry about as the three princess and the three soldiers run off together to the local village which is having a festival. She finds them all canoodling and asks what the fruck they think they’re doing and Ting Ting tells her that it’s wuv. And Mulan…squees and gives them all a hug and and and and I can’t even…
Where is Mulan? Where is she? Where she at? There’s some chick walking around using her name but it ain’t her.
A good clue that you’re watching a stupid ass movie is when the only character who’s making any damn sense is the person we’re supposed to think is being a jerk and so it is here. Shang rides up and tells the princesses to get the hell back to their tents, tells the soldiers to NEVER SPEAK TO THEM AGAIN EVER and reads Mulan the riot act for being an irresponsible jackass who’s putting the entire kingdom in jeopardy which is absolutely, totally 100% correct.
Mulan replies that her duty is to her heart which is possibly the most grandiose excuse for complete narcissism you’ll ever hear. Shang realises that they’re not right for each other and breaks off the engagement (good call, dude).
They continue on their journey and Mulan is so miserable that Mushu’s last wretched shred of a conscience finally gives out and he breaks down and confesses everything. Mulan is, quite understandably, effin’ PO’d.
But before she can make Mushu long for something as sweet as pain, bandits attack and suddenly, holy hell but something happens to this movie. The animation suddenly kicks up several notches in quality, there’s all this moody red lighting, and before you know what’s what Shang and Mulan are hanging over by a rope over a ravine and she’s got tears in his eyes and is screaming his name as he plummets to his death and WHERE THE HELL DID THIS COME FROM?!
Not complaining. Hell no. It’s by far the strongest sequence in the whole film but damn that change in tone tho’. Mulan mourns Shang by kneeling with his sword in a badass pose through a night-long thunderstorm (it’s how I want to be mourned) and the next morning she sends the three couples away, telling them that Shang’s sacrifice won’t be in vain and that she will finish the mission herself by marrying the Prince of Qui Gong herself.
Mulan rolls up in Qui Gong and tells the Emperor of Qui Gong that the princesses were killed on the way but that she’s willing to step up. The Emperor is quite pleased because marrying the person Mongol children think will come and eat them if they’re naughty is a good defence strategy. The Prince of Qui Gong is a total putz but Mulan is willing to marry him because, you know, all of China is depending on this alliance and she puts duty before her heart and it’s almost like she’s MULAN or something.
However, Shang is of course not dead. In fact, they reveal that he’s not dead literally the next scene after Mulan’s mourned him which blunts the impact a tad. He’s found by his horse and rides back to find the camp to find the soldiers and princesses about to begin their life of blissful togetherness on the run from the Emperor’s forces until the day they day or are killed in increasingly horrible ways. They tell him that Mulan is off saving China and doing her duty and Shang is all “not on my watch!” and rides off to stop her.
He arrives just as Mulan is about to get married and proceeds to just about start a start a full on war when Mushu pulls a Deus Ex Machina so blatant it would make Aristotle burst a blood vessel. Mushu impersonates “The Golden Dragon of Unity” and proclaims that he has blessed Mulan and Shang’s union and marries them there and then. And while he’s at it, he releases the princesses from their vows and everyone’s happy despite the fact that:
- The Mongols are still coming and now there’s no alliance.
- Mushu’s not liscenced to perform marriages so they’re not really married and are living in sin tut tut tut tut.
- When the emperor finds out that Yao, Chien Po and Lin have been schtupping his daughters he’s gonna…y’know I actually googled what the punishment would be in China in that era and my laptop just shuddered and shut down out of sheer horror.
But hey, Shang moves his family shrine into Mulan’s so Mushu gets to keep his damn shelf so I guess that’s all that matters.
How butt ugly is the animation? Is it as ugly as a butt?: 11/20
Actually quite nice.
Are the main characters jerks? I bet they’re jerks: 6/20
One of the best, most badass couples in the whole canon are reduced to an idiotic shipper and a pompous dumbass.
Bet the villain’s a real shitpile, character wise: 4/20
If you loved Mushu you’ll hate what they’ve done to him here. If you hated Mushu already, you will learn new depths of hatred.
Oh what’s this? Supporting characters? Fuck you supporting characters!: 11/20
A surprisingly high powered voice cast means thing could have been a lot worse.
Man, fuck the music. I hope it dies: 09/20
Girl Worth Fighting For makes a welcome return. The other two songs are passable.
FINAL SCORE: 41%
NEXT UPDATE: 13 September 2018
NEXT TIME: I don’t know when, I don’t how. I don’t know WHY.