Why “Mulan” Is The Greatest Movie Disney Ever Made

Because the only other one that even comes close is The Lion King, and I'll still fight you on that.

Quick, my brethren of the nineties: What did you learn from Disney princesses?

Snow White (1937): Beauty is everything, women are good at housework, the only way out of your terrible life is for a man (or 7) to save you
Cinderella (1950): The only way out of your terrible life is for a (rich) man to save you
Sleeping Beauty (1959): Necrophilia? Totally cool. (Also terrible life, man saving you, etc)
The Little Mermaid (1989): A man won’t like you unless you get your lady parts and shut up, and it’s important he likes you because he’ll be replacing your culture, lifestyle, and everyone you’ve ever known or loved
Beauty and the Beast (1991): Don’t worry about that abusive relationship, girls, you can totally change him. Also, beauty is a reward, both literally and figuratively, because only pretty people can be good.
Aladdin – Jasmine (1992): Seriously, all you’re good for is marriage.
Pocahontas (1995): There are cliffs in southeastern Virginia.

Okay, that last one only makes sense if you go to William and Mary, and all of these are obviously gross oversimplifications of movies I spent a lot of years adoring. I also didn’t even bother getting into the more recent movies, for the very good reason that I have not yet seen them. But these are supposed to be role models for little girls, and they’re all massively problematic characters, and it’s seriously depressing to look back at them from a slightly older perspective. I’m not saying that none of these characters have any agency (you’ll notice I didn’t even try to get into the complexities of the Pocahontas Ambivalence), but I am saying that, in Aladdin, which of the two main characters did you want to be?

But Mulan…oh, Mulan cuts right through all that crap and throws it right back in Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen face. How is this movie perfect and wonderful? Let me count the ways…

1. Without preferencing one gender over another…

First of all, is that not the best Disney song ever? (The answer is of course it is, don’t ask stupid questions, Rachelle.) But people still manage to misunderstand it. I saw a video recently – which I’m going to link, but not embed, because it made me angry – which argues that Mulan teaches that masculinity is defined by physical strength and prowess. But this video misses one very critical point of this song, which is its overwhelmingly total parodic nature. Yes, strength is important – indeed, one of the first times Mulan truly succeeds is when she masters the tasks Shang sets, and we are meant to be proud of her. But take a look at what happens later in the movie:

mulan-disneyscreencaps.com-8237

Yes, the soldiers here look ridiculous – because they’re supposed to. Brute force  – the worst expression of the strength espoused by “Be a Man” – is ineffective in this situation. Instead, Mulan realizes that she has to return to a system she rejected at the beginning of the movie:

mulan-disneyscreencaps.com-8305

Can we just take a moment to appreciate how revolutionary this is? Girls are told repeatedly throughout media that the things they learn are less important than the things boys learn (think playing catch and putting on makeup becoming the World Series verses the Miss America Pageant). Mulan demonstrates that conventionally feminine skills are not only equally valid, but can also be more useful. And, sure, argue with me that it’s only the comic relief characters who are put in drag, and that the love interest remains conventionally masculine – you’d be absolutely correct, and all I can say is that this stuff is complex and it’s really hard to get it perfectly right. But the fact remains that this movie is teaching little girls and little boys that you don’t have to wear a dress or shoot an arrow, but it’s okay if you want to, and it even encourages them to do both.

2. …it blurs gender roles.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that it’s probably harder to find characters in this movie who don’t cross-dress at some point or another than those who do, I’d like to take a moment to look at the songs in Mulan. I’ve always found it interesting that Mulan stops being a musical when shit gets real. There are five “Disney Musical” songs, and then they hit the burned out village and it all stops. But what I think is really interesting is that all of these songs (except for one, which I’ll get to in a moment) play with and ultimately reject gender tropes.

“Honor to Us All” exaggerates and, in doing so, deconstructs, the idea (which Disney is all-to-frequently in love with) that all women are good for is to be pretty and get married.

“I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” is bombastic and ridiculous, and mocks the hyper-masculinity of warfare.


(I know I already included it, but seriously guys, this song is awesome.)

“A Girl Worth Fighting For” demonstrates the absurdity of the “woman as a reward for the man’s success” trope. Mulan is uncomfortable and a little insulted the entire song, and it’s also the only song to be outright interrupted – by a burnt out village, which deromanticizes the entire idea of the song.

So, this leaves us with one more song – “Reflection.” Now, this is your basic “I Wish” song, but the angle it takes in doing that is particularly significant.

Okay, first of all, that’s the most adorable cricket ever, but that’s neither here nor there. Listen to the language this song uses – “play this part,” “who I am inside” – I mean, that’s straight out of Judith Butler. Mulan’s “I Wish” song grapples with gender performativity; for another example, consider this imagery –

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– half neutral, half hyper-feminized, and partially obscured by the writing depicting the forces which will enable her exploration of masculinity. The whole point of this song – and the underlying message of the movie – is that “boy” and “girl” are roles you put on, and not something innate to any one person. Look, obviously it’s a little heavy handed at times, and I point you to the fact that it’s a children’s movie. But Mulan is able to transverse freely between masculine and feminine, and determine what works best for her in any particular situation, making this movie possibly the greatest deconstruction of heternormativity ever shown to six year olds. (And yes, that includes a subtle acceptance of homosexuality; to all the idiots who keep posting this picture…

 …that’s kind of the point.)

3. It celebrates intelligence over everything else.

Let’s talk about “Be a Man” one last time (probably. I really, really love this song, guys). I know that I said before that it demonstrates the positive aspects of masculinity, and that we are meant to cheer on Mulan as she masters these skills, but check out the turning point of the song:

mulan-disneyscreencaps.com-4755 (1)

Mulan succeeds through her own creativity and intelligence, and she continues doing so throughout the movie. You could argue this happens for other Disney Princesses, and sure, Belle, for instance, is depicted as smart, but her story is ultimately resolved through twoo luv, and her wit sort of becomes irrelevant by the end. Mulan’s brains are  a plot point throughout the movie; check out how she wins the battle:

How she defeats Shan Yu:

Mulan succeeds because she’s brilliant and awesome and takes control of a situation in the most creative way possible. There are no fairy godmothers, genies, sea witches, or magic trees helping her along – indeed, her spirit protector is a joke, gently mocking his precursors through his sheer ineffectiveness. Mulan as a movie tells kids that being smart is cool, that it’s better than just being strong or pretty, and that it’ll usually beat both.

4. The romance is earned.

Quick, why did Prince Charming love Cinderella? Why did Prince Eric love Ariel? Why did (and just as evidence of how underdeveloped these two are, I had to look up both their names) Prince Phillip love Aurora? Because plot, I know, but that’s not what happens in Mulan. You can see the relationship in this movie develop, as Mulan gains Shang’s respect and ultimately  his trust, as Shang starts to open up to Mulan and prove to her that he can lose his prejudices and hang-ups. You can see that Mulan loves that Shang is strong and brave and loyal and someone other people follow, and you can see that Shang loves that Mulan never quits and is smart and fearless and always going to do the right thing no matter what. Their relationship makes sense, and is based on something more than “They’re both pretty.” More than that (and I fully admit that I’m starting to stretch here), their relationship is a bit of a inversion of the “man gets the girl as his reward trope,” in that Shang is sort of Mulan’s reward for saving China. Now, obviously, both characters are more developed than you usually see in this sort of situation, but the final scene in the movie kind of goes “Hey Dad, I saved China, and I won this sword, this medal, and this guy.”

Maybe this is problematic because it does play into the “women need to get married” ideology. But I think that it mostly averts that, first by making the relationship so well-developed, and second by aligning Shang with the other prizes she brings home. By doing the scene from Mulan’s perspective, the trope is, if perhaps not totally inverted (which is fine, because it’s a lousy trope anyway), at least knocked around a bit.

5. Mulan has a father and a mother (and a grandmother!)

Disney adores orphans, and when it can’t have a full orphan, it at least kills off the mother. To be fair, lots of fictional characters are orphans, because that eliminates having to deal with two often complex and problematic relationships, and gives the character an easy tragic past. But in doing so, you lose the chance to show kids a positive relationship with the parent, and especially to give young female characters a positive female role model (check out the list of Disney Princesses above, and tell me how many of them have a mother). But Mulan not only has two parents; she also has another female role model who is pretty awesome in her own right.

mulan-disneyscreencaps.com-592

The movie derives its central conflict from the rich, complex relationships Mulan has with her parents, instead of pretending they don’t exist. This is far more valuable to children than an easy tragedy; it shows parents as imperfect people (Mulan’s father’s foolish insistence that he go off to war), who we still respect (Mulan just wants to bring honor to her family), and who always, ultimately, love us.

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6. It harshly depicts the stark horrors of war.

Oh God, that doll. THAT DOLL.

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Okay, this may seem an odd thing to recommend this movie for children, but I give it a massive amount of credit for actually engaging with its subject matter. To put it in perspective, it would be like Pocahontas dealing with biological warfare and mass genocide, and not forcing American history teachers to resort to Howard Zinn every year. The first third or so of the movie seems to be setting itself up to glorify warfare, and kids need to know that this is terrible, heartbreaking, and not something to fool around with. The message of this movie could have easily been that war is fun and a way to gain honor; instead, it depicts it as a last resort, something to avoid at all costs. Indeed, there’s a bit of pacifist social commentary here, when the horror of war is contrasted with the opulence of the Capital parade.

My brother asked me if I’d noticed any of this stuff at all when I first watched this movie, and my answer was that it came out when I was six. But whether or not I was able to articulate it, this stuff was still there, and I was still being exposed to  it at a young age. Look, little girls (and big girls, too) tend to get short shrift when it comes to media. Female heroes are rare, and it’s even rarer that you find one who you actually want to be when grow up. That’s why Mulan is such a revelation – she’s a fun, smart, capable female character (who thankfully manages to avoid spunky) and tells both little girls and little boys that they don’t have to deal with Prince Charming. I’m not trying to say that none of the other Disney Princesses made good movies, but Mulan is the only one who’s cool, who really presents something positive for the kids who are watching her. We need more characters like her, and that’s why I will fight to the death anyone who tries to deny that this is the greatest movie Disney ever made.

And finally, because this is seriously the best song ever:

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29 responses to “Why “Mulan” Is The Greatest Movie Disney Ever Made

    • Lol if cinderella’s shoe fit perfectly (according to the fairy godmother) then why did it fall off? I wondered that for a while.

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  1. You forgot to mention the freudian imagery of when she traps the hun’s sword (phallus) in her paper fan (vagina) and defeats the aggressors, which is treated positively and as a brave and heroic act!

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  2. Yes! Mulan is ridiculously underrated and it really does have some of the best songs of the Disney bunch. Plus it has Mushu! I can’t watch an Eddie Murphy film without thinking of him. “My eyes… can see straight through your armour…” *slap*

    Great post, really well written 🙂

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  3. May I simply just say what a comfort to discover a person that really understands what they’re discussing over the internet. You certainly realize how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people really need to look at this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised that you’re not more popular given that you certainly
    possess the gift.

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  4. If that’s all you learned from them, you probably are best off not watching Disney at all (and you probably havent seen those since you were in dyacare anyway).

    Oh, nice femme-shaming too. Mulan would not approve. Hey, didn’t you just say feminine stuff can be- Ohhhhh.

    PS BRB, gnna go boycott Mulan, it teaches girls you only worthy of respect and being called smart and strong when you act like a man and teaches kids running off to war solves all your problems. Oh, and being lazy and unmotivated is aight as long as you’re a genius like Mulan! Oh, and give up everything you want to blindly do what your family and society want, like marry a stranger! See, I can do that too.

    The movie is so flawed it’s not even funny. I can’t take it that seriously with a black guy voicing a tiny dragon cracking jokes every 5 minutes or Mulan cowering in fear because zomg men and matchmakers scary! The lack of balance is very similar to Pocahontas’.

    Yeah, gonna keep supporting Snow, Cindy, and Aurora as the awesome, underrated role models and strong women they are. Not that Mulan isn’t a sweetheart, but with cliche-spouting, hypocritical “fans” like you, it tarnishes the beauty of her character.

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    • …..
      1. “girls you only worthy of respect and being called smart and strong when you act like a man ” Are you saying that only men possess creativity, independence, intelligence, strength…. and using those traits mean girls are “acting like a man”? Shame on you.

      2. “Running off to war solves all your problems” – First of all, that did NOT solve all her problems. Mulan “ran off to war” to replace her father and save him from a certain death. I bet you wouldn’t have the balls to do that for your dad.

      3. “lazy and unmotivated” – …. How is cutting off her hair, joining the army despite females being explicitly and severely forbidden from the battlefield, constantly attempting to protect her disguise, working to improve her fitness and fighting and skills, winning battles, etc… considered ‘lazy and unmotivated’? Oh please.

      4. “Give up everything you want to blindly do what your family and society want” – You seem to imply that selfishness is a virtue. Actually, she is serving a higher purpose than herself-family, country. This form of selfLESSness is found cross culturally i.e. in Ancient Roman times: pietas, or, piety. Aeneas forsaking his romantic relationship with Dido to fulfill his destiny of founding a great civilization… Mulan is upholding morally sound traditional values that you, immersed in a capitalistic, self-interested society, fail to recognize the beauty of. There are actually things more important than your own interests?! Shocker!!!

      5. “Marry a stranger” – the man has been her general and trainer for months…they fought together and conversed together… And somehow, sharing traumatic experiences like war bring people together. They are closer to each other more than couples are nowadays.

      6. “Mulan cowering in fear because zomg men and matchmakers scary!” The traditional Chinese/Asian culture makes women entirely submissive, and forbids women from even making eye contact with men. She has to show respect, even fear, to all males. Please educate yourself about other cultures, and get out of your American bubble. Also, who wouldn’t be scared of a creepy matchmaker forcing upon her an unwanted fate? Furthermore, throughout the movie she is understandably nervous that men will find out her disguise and then punish her and her loved ones for her deception. Her getting caught prematurely would result in disastrous, probably deadly consequences as well as shame.

      Your arguments are so disgustingly flawed as well as culturally blind it’s not even funny, and you used way more cliches and non-backed up generalizations than this writer did.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. FINALLY someone else gets it. Always liked this movie, and this puts into words why. I’ve looked at reasons why Mulan sucks, because for some reason everyone seems to ignore it. They were either OMG THIS IS NOT HOW YOU WRITE FEMINIST CHARACTERS (I’ve been meaning to ask, how exactly DO you write feminist characters?) or OMG HER FACIAL STRUCTURE IS DISTINCTLY VIETNAMESE. To which the correct response is: seriously, have you never heard “Be a Man?”

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  6. Nice blog and post! I really like the fact that she earns the respect of the guys by success, no gender qoutas her way, no blaming the guys for her shortcomings, just pure badassery. And in the end she gets the guy that really started liking her because he saw she had spirit when they trained. Can a relationship truly be more based on respect?

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  7. So, I basically love your points here about Mulan!! Although I disagree with some points you made about the other Disney films and characters, I love how you emphasize why “Mulan” is an awesome movie, especially how it celebrates intelligence. It is such an underrated Disney movie and your post really shows why. Great job! 🙂

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  8. Loved this post, and I completely agree. Mulan is sinfully underrated, and I wish Disney would do more to lift Mulan out of the pits of its ridiculously lucrative Princess franchise (i.e. Disney, you need to stop assuming people are too racist to like Mulan and start putting out some more Mulan merchandise).

    Just out of curiosity, would you change your mind about Mulan now that Disney has come out with Frozen? Personally, my opinion has not changed in the slightest. Almost all the things people are saying Disney has finally gotten right with Frozen, I felt they had already done in Mulan (or Tangled).

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    • I think Frozen was great, but I would still put Mulan above it because, while Frozen did some great things with a sister relationship that hasn’t really been done much at all (and the level to which “Let It Go” has been overplayed doesn’t affect my love for it at all), Mulan is just generally a better movie. Most of the music in Frozen was forgettable, the plot was a bit of a mess, and so, while it did have some really significant strengths, those were unfortunately not enough to save the rest of the movie. Mulan, in addition to the great work it does in terms of gender, is also just a consistently good movie, so I think it’s still tops.

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  9. Pingback: 15 Reasons to go watch Mulan | movies by jill·

  10. Just wanted to point you to the newest Disney Princesses: Merida from Brave and Ana and Elsa from Frozen (Ana and Elsa may not have officially joined the line but I’ll be surprised if they don’t). Disney does seem to be moving to provide stronger, more independent and capable heroines. And “Be a Man” is the best!

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  11. To those mindless people arguing in the comments^ OH MY GOD ! So much controversy over a simple children’s movie and a fan-article! Face it people, every damn movie has got its flaws and it takes a seriously open mind as you grow old to see the positive things in them.
    First off, I love Mulan. Has been ages since I’ve watched this but yeah this was one of the most developed animated movies that lasts for the span of hundred minutes, that I have watched so far and no amount of shaming the characters or criticizing anything will make a difference. Lets face it, first of this movie was made in times when women were considered all that, that is pretty and stupid.

    So to the author, I really love the way you put your article down and yes I love that lucky bug too. But there are a few things I’d like to point out. For discussion’s sake. Has it occurred to you that maybe the movie was made as an satire to the prejudices that society had towards women back then in the 90’s ? and maybe those are the reasons for the song “Bring honor to the family” and the other little girly things?. And there’s another thing that I dont quite agree on. At the end with that post where people troll Shang for being gay in half of the movie. I dont think it was to teach children about homosexuality (Not that there is anything wrong with it) I just think it was to show how men can also be capable of showing emotion and hold each others back through empathetic ways.(Again I’m talking about a time when men and emotions/tears were considered complete opposites) and if we see it from the viewers point , as we already know ping is a woman and that Shang is sympathizing with a woman ? well even then its sheds some light on a different stereotype that we have even today. That men and women are incapable of having completely friendly and a healthy relationship while being emotionally connected just like two normal human beings without the added thought of being sexually involved or having a ulterior motive other than just helping each other. Well I guess I’m reading too much into a simple movie. But what Can I say. this movie inspired me when I was really little and I dint realize this until I had a weirdass dream this morning about Mulan climbing the poles while in training . I dint remember the name of the movie but something told me that I needed to seek this one out and watch it again. And guess what. It made a whole lot of difference. Hey , other than all this BS that I just pointed out. You’re article was really nice to read and kinda uplifting ^_^ 🙂 🙂 Kudos !

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Week 36: Mulan | A Year in Disney Movies·

  13. Pingback: Mulan, the Disney Movie Everyone Should Watch – Affinity Magazine·

  14. I watched it last night for about the 30th time.
    When the ‘let’s get down to business’ song ends and she is on the top of the pole getting the arrow I get emotional… and i’m 50.

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  15. I such as the precious information you supply in your articles or blog posts.I will bookmark your blog page and verify again below usually.I am palticularry definitely sure I’ll discover an awful lot of new things proper listed here! Fine luck for the next!

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