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Commentary: I watched the animated ‘Mulan’ for the first time in 2020. I wish I liked it

Mulan and Mushu in the animated "Mulan."
In advance of the release of Disney’s live-action “Mulan,” I was asked to finally watch the 1998 animated classic.
(Disney)

When Disney’s “Mulan” hit theaters in the summer of 1998, I skipped it.

Looking back now, I can see that avoiding the film had a lot to do with how I was navigating my own identity at the time. But as a Japanese American teen, I’d chalked it up to being largely uninterested in seeing a Disney interpretation of any Asian culture when I could watch anime instead.

Over the years I’d been made to feel that having never seen “Mulan” was a sort of sacrilege by those who touted its empowering themes and reminded me that its representation was meaningful. So as the world premiere of the live-action “Mulan” approached back in March (before its official release was postponed by a pandemic), I finally watched the animated original. I wish I liked it more than I did.

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Based on the legend of Chinese warrior Hua Mulan, the animated classic tells the story of a young woman struggling to reconcile who she is and what her family expects her to be. Independent and unconventional by her community’s standards, Fa Mulan leaves home disguised as a man to enlist in the army to protect her father. And even though she is kicked out after her secret is discovered, she keeps doing what’s right in order to save China.

The live-action “Mulan,” which is available now as a PVOD add-on through Disney+, is more a direct adaptation of the centuries-old poem than an update of the animated musical.

I was familiar with “Mulan’s” basic plot going into my first viewing and understood that the film has been particularly significant among both Asian American and LGBTQ audiences over the years. I was looking forward to finally seeing for myself what the fuss was all about.

The earlier scenes in the film are the most relatable. Mulan, who comes off as a bit of a tomboy, is nevertheless willing to go through all the rituals expected of a daughter in her station to find an acceptable husband since that is what she’s been told is best for her family. But despite her best efforts, she can’t really conform who she is into the mold that society has thrust upon her.

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As a person who grew up queer in a partially immigrant household, that weight of trying to meet family expectations — especially tied to the notions of duty and honor — is something very familiar. It’s a feeling particularly well-conveyed in “Reflection,” as Mulan sings about being unable to hide who she is inside in order to “pass” for a perfect daughter.

It’s hard to say what seeing these scenes might have meant to me back then, considering that was around the time I was struggling to keep shut the closet door some high school classmates had tried to bust open. But I think seeing Mulan’s arc would have been difficult to digest as a teenager.

It wouldn’t be fair to judge a movie from over 20 years ago through a strictly contemporary lens, so I tried to to be mindful in my approach and about my reactions. I had expected at least some of the Asian-inspired elements to feel a bit dated, and there are indeed characters and motifs that come off as more offensive caricatures than anything else.

What I hadn’t prepared for was how conflicted I would feel about “Mulan’s” messaging around gender, especially knowing there are many fans who have embraced the film for its feminism and subversively queer narrative.

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That “Mulan” was a children’s film that showed how gender is something that is performed rather than some innate trait is indeed groundbreaking. But for me it ultimately doesn’t really challenge the perceptions of binary gender in any meaningful way (not that the movie had intended to).

Mulan goes undercover as a man because she’s not going to let society’s rules stop her from doing what she needs to keep her father from having to re-enlist. In doing so, she proves that women can be just as strong, intelligent and competent as warriors as men, if not more. That is definitely empowering.

But certain deviations of gender appear to be played up for laughs, such as when the matchmaker unknowingly gives herself a mustache or when Mulan has her soldier friends dress up as concubines in order to help save the Emperor. (These are moments that have thankfully been excised from the live-action movie, which is more straightforward in presenting Mulan’s struggle as finding her place in a patriarchal world as a woman who is already a great warrior.)

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Mulan grappling with the restrictiveness of acceptable expressions of femininity is also not quite the same as questioning your gender identity. There is never really a sense that she wants to be a man. That’s not her story and that’s fine.

In the end, Mulan is able to find acceptance because she is the hero who saved China. Although her love story with Li Shang is more a postscript to her adventure, it doesn’t change the fact that Mulan found herself an acceptable potential husband. By accomplishing what was expected of her, albeit in an unconventional way, Mulan helped reinforce some of the unfortunate heteronormative tropes that Disney films of this era are known for.

I can’t help but think about how “Mulan” was originally released at a time when I didn’t even have the vocabulary to express how suffocating gender felt. It was years before I actually understood how gender is a spectrum or that mine didn’t need to be a fixed point within it, so I’m relieved I didn’t have to try to navigate my feelings about this film then.

But I’m glad Mulan and I both found our ways to being ourselves.


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