Upon the release of this film, the story of Mulan reached legendary status in the English-speaking world. Based primarily on Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Disney’s Mulan captivated audiences with the story of a woman who was determined to find her true purpose in life. The producers of Mulan made a significant effort to integrate elements from the original legend into the film. In particular:
Mushu, Mulan’s sidekick in the Disney film, was named after Mulan’s cousin in the 1903 play Mulan Joins the Army.
Ping, the male pseudonym Mulan chose for herself, is a name appearing in a few versions of the legend. Xin Ping is the supreme commander in the 1850 novel Fierce and Filial, while Hua Ping is Mulan’s cousin in the 1964 film Lady General Hua Mu-Lan.
The epic victory won by causing an avalanche was inspired by the 1850 novel Fierce and Filial. (However, in this version of the legend, the avalanche is credited to Mulan’s fiancé.)
Mulan’s declining of the emperor’s offer of a prominent position is a common theme that appears in many of the Mulan legends, including the Ballad of Mulan and many other retellings.
Despite these similarities between this film and previous versions of the legend, Disney’s Mulan should not be considered a faithful retelling. The most significant change which the creators of Mulan introduced was Mulan’s individualism. By injecting Western ideals into the primary driving force behind the protagonist’s actions, Disney created an American film that was almost entirely devoid of Chinese ideals. The matchmaker (who would have been highly respected in ancient China) is portrayed as clumsy and unintelligent. Mulan cuts her hair in direct violation of Confucius’ teachingsConfucius taught that neither men nor women should ever cut their hair because it is a gift from one’s parents and even disrespects authority figures.
The original legend of Mulan is, at its core, the story of a woman who is willing to sacrifice herself for her family. The ancient Chinese viewed her as the perfect woman who epitomized true femininity. Her decision to take her father’s place in battle was the ultimate act of submission; this was in no way done out of defiance of gender stereotypes. Disney’s Mulan, however, replaced Mulan’s virtue with American feminism. Despite this fact, it should be emphasized that the creators of this film were familiar with the original legend. Thus, alterations were introduced deliberately and not out of ignorance.
While this film was not faithful to the original legend, it is primarily responsible for making the story of Mulan reach legendary status in the English-speaking world. As a result, Disney’s Mulan sparked a renewed interest in this classic legend that has continued to this day.
Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou, is a retired soldier whose health has been steadily declining in his old age. When the emperor orders that one man from each family come forward to fight against the Huns, Mulan becomes increasingly worried about her father’s safety. If he fulfills his conscription orders, his fate is inevitable. Because her father has no son to take his place, Mulan takes this duty upon herself.
Knowing that her parents would not approve of her decision, Mulan secretly takes her father’s armor and disguises herself as a man. When the family learns of Mulan’s departure, they pray to their ancestors. Through a series of unfortunate events, a dragon by the name of Mushu is sent to assist Mulan in her journey.
When Mulan reports for duty, she is discouraged to find that she is unable to perform well during initial training exercises. Captain Li Shang works hard with the new recruits, and Mulan is soon able to prove that she is ready to face the Huns in battle. When Mulan and her fellow soldiers are finally prepared for war, they set out to join the main army. However, they soon find the remains of a Chinese army and discover that the Huns have massacred the majority of the Chinese troops. Among the casualties was Li Shang’s own father.
Li Shang and his soldiers are downcast. However, they have little time to grieve because they soon find themselves surrounded by Hun soldiers. Mulan quickly causes an avalanche and rescues her comrades, but is injured in the ensuing battle. While the doctor is bandaging her wounds, Mulan’s true identity is discovered. Li Shang and his men depart for the imperial city to report their victory while Mulan, who has been expelled from the army, remains behind. When Mulan realizes that several enemy soldiers have survived the avalanche, she rushes forward to report that the victory has not yet been sealed.
Despite Mulan’s best efforts, she is unable to convince Li Shang that the Huns are advancing. As a result, the Huns capture the emperor with ease. However, Mulan refuses to accept defeat. With the help of her former comrades, Mulan climbs onto the roof of the palace, challenges the leader of the Hun army, and rescues the emperor.
The emperor, who now owes his life to Mulan, asks her to become his adviser. However, Mulan declines and only requests that she be allowed to return home. After Mulan has been reunited with her family, Li Shang visits and is welcomed by Mulan’s parents and grandmother.