Originally published June 19, 2018
“I’ve heard a great deal about you, Mulan.”
This line spoken by the Emperor of China encompasses the thoughts of many about MULAN; the Disney animated adaptation of the Chinese tale of the same name, which was released 20 years ago today. When her elderly father is reported for duty to fight off the Huns invading China, Mulan, despite being a woman, disguises as a man and takes his place in the army.
MULAN stars the first female lead in a Disney film where she really came into her own as a hero. Despite disguising as a man for a good portion of the film, in the end, she saved China as herself. Even though her intentions had nothing to do with proving herself in strength compared to her fellow male soldiers, the film remains a go-to example for feminist stories and has paved the way for other headstrong female characters to emerge from Disney since then.
Mulan is also the first Asian lead in a Disney film. With Ming-Na Wen providing her speaking voice and Lea Salonga providing her singing voice, it brought upon a level of diversity that Disney was starting to factor into during that era. Aside from Wen and Salonga, the film was made up of a predominantly Asian cast; featuring the talents of B.D. Wong, George Takei, James Hong, James Shigeta, Freda Foh Shen, Pat Morita, and Soon-Tek Oh. While yes, not all the actors were of Chinese descent, to have that many Asian actors in a Disney film was significant in of itself at the time.
MULAN was the second to last film of the Disney Renaissance, and while it’s a significant film for all who have seen it, it is, perhaps, even more so for those who remember seeing it at the time it came out. For many Asian Americans who were children when it was released, it was one of the first times they had seen an Asian in such a role. While I can’t say it resonated with me in that way due to my lack of awareness for my biracial identity at the time, it was empowering to see a female character to be portrayed in such a strong way. That meant a lot for me to see then.
It holds up well even now, both in terms of its nostalgic factors and its relevancy. The ironic lyrics to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” remain ingrained in people’s memories, ready to whip out at a karaoke opportunity. As for relevancy, well, it goes without saying that diverse casting and better developed female characters are what we are pushing for nowadays in the media (especially given the social and political climate we are in).
It remains a work that, as Wen recently expressed in an interview for ET, was “beautifully and relevantly and gorgeously done.” It is no wonder that it is a film that she remains proud of to this day, nor is it no surprise that two decades later, MULAN still holds a special place in the hearts of all who’ve ever seen it, and went away feeling empowered.