Things Beloved: Mulan

When I was very little (and to this day) I was not into Princesses at all. I mean, I loved to dress up, and I had a serious romantic streak but I just did NOT understand the princess thing, specifically. It was just outside my comprehension. This was actually extraordinarily advantageous to me when playing with most of my friends growing up.
I was a bit too savvy about this for a little 8-year-old, and I shall show you how it went. I would play with a group of friends and, naturally, we all wanted to dress up and play pretend. I had long since learned that most of my peers at that time (this went on to change in later years) DID want to be princesses, which is all well and good. Also, for me, it was all too convenient.
“Let’s play that you are the princess,” I’d say to friend number 1.
She would be thrilled. How kind of me to give up the coveted role!
“Yes! I am Princess Victoria!”
“And you are ALSO a princess,” I would say to friend number 2. “This Kingdom has a few princesses, you see.”
Friend 2 would rejoice, “Then I am Princess Belle!”
And perhaps they would tell of their background and of the prince whom they loved.
“Perfect,” I would say, with a sigh of satisfaction at my own brilliance. “You are the two beautiful princesses of the kingdom. The bad guy has you trapped in the palace. I am the clever, neglected servant girl who can fight, and who knows the back passage-way. I will help you escape. You guys follow me.”
And then I proceeded to play the main role in the entire story, dictating its every plot twist and turn to the heroic advantage of my character. It was a consciously manipulative move, and I distinctly remember concocting the plan, and isn’t that a little sinister for an eight-year-old? Feel free to shake your finger at me in admonishment. Eventually my friends figured out my game and realized that the servant girl was the character to be in the stories I made.
Now, certainly not all girls want to be princesses, AND for the many that do, that is certainly not a bad thing. It just wasn’t my thing. I’m sure there are lots of others like me out there, but I didn’t happen to know very many (or any?) growing up, so I felt like a bit of anomaly at the time. Not, mind you, because anybody told me I was wrong for wanting to fight and having not interest in princesses, but just because I didn’t seem to be on the same page as anyone else. That feeling persisted and expanded as I got older and there just wasn’t a lot out there that resonated with me (except Robin McKinley’s books).
Frankly, I spent the majority of my childhood desperately wishing I was Peter Pan and feeling a deep sense of dread that I would have to grow up and be boring. I never saw grown-ups climbing trees, which was proof positive of all my deepest fears. (As I have mentioned before, I still have a climbing compulsion which I rarely get to act upon).
Then, when I was twelve years old, Mulan came into theaters. It was a revelation. I gathered my paltry babysitting monies (the going rate was 3-4 dollars an hour) and went to see it in theaters FOUR times, hitching rides with siblings and cousins and whoever else would take me. I know others have experienced this the first time they have that fierce connection to a piece of literature or art: it was like it was made for me.
Mulan feels like she’s bizarre, an anomaly (whether or not that was true) and she’s trying to do the right thing for her family, which ends up being going to the army in disguise and, y’know, saving China. That is reason number one for my loving this movie.
So now, a smattering of the jillion other reasons:
-Mulan’s tough, smart-talking, hilarious Grandma
-Mulan has parents who are alive, and who love each other, and whom she loves and respects. A whole, healthy family is depicted without the parents dying tragically in the first 10 minutes!
-Character depiction: the innovativeness Mulan uses to save China is portrayed early on in how she does her chores and how she helps that man win the Go game. Later, it is how she achieves success during training, because she figures out how to use the weights (read: apparent weaknesses) to overcome the obstacle.
-It’s a war story, and while it manages to be subtle, it does not shy away from consequences: Mulan’s dad has an injury from a previous war, Shang’s dad dies, it is implied that villagers (including children) were slaughtered, and Mulan herself is wounded.
-That scene where the Huns pour down the snowy valley is very well done. I distinctly remember being awed by it from the very first.
-The villain is very intelligent and powerful, and I like that. It makes Mulan’s victory more meaningful.
-While the whole “you are a woman, how dare you be in the army!” thing was actually not part of the original Mulan story/poem, I think it is important that it was depicted here, even down to the part where Shang maybe-almost executes Mulan. It addresses a serious experience, a genuine conflict, and it does so in a way that is meaningful while still being entertaining and done in such a way that children can fully grasp it.
-The music is fantastic
-Mulan is not doing what she does simply to be rebellious. She is doing it to save her father and, in a roundabout way, honor her family in whatever way she can. She is not indifferent to or aloof from the culture around her. If she had done it for sheer “rebellious princess syndrome,” that would have been emptier and more boring.
-She isn’t naturally good at everything, especially not right off the bat. The training sequence does a good job of showing that she is actually falling far behind in the physical challenges of martial training. This meant a lot to me then (she had to WORK for it) and even more to me now. When I was in the Marine Corps I was in the rabbits (fast) group ability for PT (Physical Training) when compared only to other women, and generally continued to be so at any given duty station. (There were always a couple of other girls who smoked me, though). I had to work so hard for it, because I’m not naturally fast. And you know what? That still only put me somewhere in the middle/top-third of the pack of the guys. So Mulan’s struggles to rise from the back of the pack, despite it being shown in passing, is important.
-The movie is funny
-A beautiful, sweet, father-daughter moment at the end, where Fa Zhu ignores all the honors he “should” covet, simply to show love to his daughter and let her know that she is good enough, and that he loves who she is.
-Battle romance. I love me some battle romance, especially when it’s subtle.
-the subtle commentary during the “bride” song where they talk about how men like a tiny waist, but then not five minutes later, the matchmaker tells her she’s “too skinny, not good for bearing sons.” Hmmm….
There are more. Those are just off the top of my head. It is one of, perhaps, 4 whole Disney movies that I have let my two year old watch so far, and whenever I re-watch it, I discover new nuances to love.

 

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