Disney’s Mulan: Almost A Heroine

From the day Bambi first struggled to his feet in 1942, Disney has been a strong proponent of Hero’s Journey plot arcs. Indeed, as explained in our blog about Christopher Vogler’s  “Memo that Started It All,” for the past quarter century this has been a deliberate commercial decision. To respond to the contemporary demand for female protagonists, Disney has produced a number of films about marriageable but defiant princesses who engage in quests of one sort or another that culminate in a happily ever after ending without loose ends. The 1998 film Mulan, released four years after The Lion King, provides some interesting complications to the Disney Hero’s Journey formula.  Although the title character, Mulan, achieves great fame and honor by the film’s end, her motivations are more complex than the typical hero’s and at the film’s end it is clear that her journey is far from over.

As in Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, the movie  begins with Mulan’s Separation from the Feminine. Fa Mulan does not fit the traditional feminine ideal of her community, evidenced by her disastrous failure at fulfilling her role as a potential bride during her meeting with a matchmaker. Due to this failing, the matchmaker chastises her for bringing “dishonor” to her family. Following this Separation, she moves on to Identification with the Masculine and Gathering of Allies when she learns that an order has been issued for sons and fathers to join the army in the fight against the Huns. Rather than allow her aging crippled father to go to war, Mulan cuts her hair and dresses in his armor. Her ally is Mushu the red dragon, the film’s stock anthropomorphic comic animal sidekick, and an alleged ancestral guide.

I'll Make a Man Out of You

The final shot of the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song number depicts Mulan as fully integrated among her fellow (male) soldiers.

With Mushu at her side, Mulan sets out for the army camp and finds herself traveling the Road of trials and Meeting Ogres and Dragons. Upon arrival at the camp, Mulan struggles to find acceptance, but she eventually makes a name for herself by succeeding at an exercise no other man can, depicted in the film’s most popular song, the ironically named, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” This is the first of many times when Mulan’s new (heroine) perspective permits her to creatively solve a problem that all the men around her are stuck on. After earning the respect of her captain, Li Shang, Mulan joins her fellow soldiers battling  the Huns. During this crucial battle, Mulan experiences the Boon of Success by aiming a firecracker at the overhanging cliffs and creating an avalanche that kills many Huns.  In this attack, Mulan is thought to have killed their savage leader, Shan Yu.

Her success is short-lived, however, and Mulan is soon propelled into Feelings of Spiritual Aridity. She is injured during the Hun attack and once the dust settles and she is treated for her injuries, her gender is revealed. Her betrayal of self was impossible to maintain and Mulan is fed up with attempting to perpetuate the lie that denies and limits who she truly is.

The sentence for having pretended to be a man would normally be death, but her life is spared since she saved her captain’s life during the battle. Instead, she is cast out of the troop and left with nothing but her horse, her armor, and her animal guides, Mushu and Cri-Kee the “lucky” cricket.  Left behind by her fellow soldiers, Mulan learns that Shan Yu and some of the Huns actually survived the avalanche.  She realizes she must go to the Imperial City to save the emperor and her comrades.

When Mulan arrives in the Imperial City, she attempts to advise Captain Li Shang about the Huns and their plans to attack again now that the city’s guard is down, but he doesn’t listen to her because she is a woman. In the face of this rebuff, Mulan realizes she alone can avert disaster and is forced into Healing the Wounded Masculine. She knows that she needs to take action to save China. Ignoring Li Shang, she enlists the help of the three close friends she made while in the army who accept and trust her even knowing that she is a woman.

Mulan Masculine Feminine

Mulan shows her skill at subverting gender expectations by working her society’s sexist views to her advantage.

The film’s rising action reaches its climax when Mulan is able to use the skills she learned training to be a soldier and her intelligence and feminine wiles to defeat Shan Yu and the Huns. In an Integration of the Masculine and Feminine, Mulan  instructs her fellow soldiers to dress as concubines in order to enter the palace, since the invisibility of women  will now finally work to her advantage. She also confronts Shan Yu personally, and by drawing her hair back to imitate the style she wore  while posing as a male soldier, she shocks Shan Yu by revealing that he was defeated by a woman the first time, and will now again be defeated by a woman. She is rewarded by the emperor for saving China and offered a prestigious position among his staff. Mulan rejects the Emperor’s offer, preferring to return home, having brought honor to her family.

Had the movie ended there, Mulan would be one of a very few heroine’s journey tales aimed at children.

However, rather than endorse Mulan’s family-oriented motivation to return home to an every day life to be a satisfying ending, Disney tacks on a quick and confusing love plot. Captain Li Shang arrives at the Fa family home to return Mulan’s father’s helmet, but he suddenly acts sheepish and love-struck. Mulan invites him to stay for dinner. Her grandmother asks if he would like to stay forever. Mulan has already fulfilled her mission of having worked for something greater than herself, but by introducing the marriage-with-Li Shang plot, Disney steps back toward the more familiar Snow White ending and sets up ground for the direct-to-video sequel Mulan II. In the sequel, Mulan becomes  a political escort/body guard for the Emperor’s three daughters (who are also the subjects of a series of aborted and then successful marriage plots) and a quasi-princess in marrying into the Li family. Unable to believe that Mulan’s personally motivated but ultimately selfless drive could satisfy their audience, Disney has tweaked this heroine’s journey tale enough to fit on the rack with their other princess stories and produce a sequel that lacks both the heart and truth of the original.