Mulan was one of the first movies I ever saw in the theatres, and to this day remains one of the most rewarding big-screen experiences of my life. This film was made to be larger than life. Is it the animation, the music, the deep and rich colors, the epic backgrounds? I don't know, but if I were to narrow it down to one thing, I would have to say that, next to some key moments in the Star Wars saga and the opening to The Lion King, seeing the Huns charge down the mountain slope was the most epic moment ever to appear on the big screen.
There's something dramatic about the film, and in spite of its perfectly times comic relief, it actually does have an earnest story about honor, growth, and sacrifice. Mulan's character is far more serious than any Disney princess to precede her, and even many who came after her. Many Disney films opt for a poetic name, but they titled this film after its main character because there's really something that stands out about her. She's big enough and the has the character to carry the film. What interesting is that her story is really quite simple, and the plot doesn't have too many twists. However, that never really occurred to me when I first watched the movie, and it didn't occur to me last night. There's power in the story's simplicity. The movie doesn't bother being complicated, but that's okay because it focuses on being big.
How big is this film? It's an epic, and at stake is the future of all of China. Disney didn't try to show the whole of the country, and while I regret to say that perhaps a greater illustration of the setting would have been nice, I also realize that we all understand that China is a big place. The film didn't personally show how big a place China is, but it does help people feel just how big it is. From the Imperial Palace to the mountains to the long journeys to the Great Wall of China,something felt truly big and epic in scope about the landscape. In any case, I think most people, even kids, have a sense of China being a big place. From childhood, after all, everyone has heard of the sheer size of the Great Wall. Even if a young viewer knew nothing of China before seeing Mulan, he or she would still be transported to a far-away land. When I was a little boy going to see this film, I forgot I was in Iowa. Instead, I felt like I had traveled halfway across the world to see this film, because this film made me feel like I was in China. It made me feel like its characters were travelling truly long distances.
Yet, the largest part of this film is still Mulan herself. The fantastic journey to China was indeed tremendous, but the main reason why this film is big is because of Mulan's conviction, and everything that's at stake for her. She gives up honor to do what's compassionate. The emotions and the music behind the scene where she chooses to take her father's place are intense and very real. Again, this film feels big, especially at that moment. Her decisions are huge. Indeed, they are legendary. In spite of the plot's simplicity, that is why Mulan's actions ring so loud. Seeing her select few choices, few enough that they could have been concisely told in a brief folk tale, I clearly saw a legend in the making. I could feel the legend.
What I really like about the character is that in many ways, she is neither male nor female. Even though I was a boy seeing that film, I sometimes forgot that she was a woman, even though that was part of the point of the film. I thought of her as Mulan, a person. A big deal was made of her in the beginning when she didn't really fit into female stereotypes. Yet, she wasn't rebelling against the norm; she in fact attempting to go along with it in the beginning as best as she could. She wasn't a tomboy, nor was she a ditz in an uptight society. She didn't have a specific dream that set her apart, so why was it that she couldn't be herself? It seems that what defined her were her convictions, and she was constantly held back for being, as the ending song says, true to her heart. As her legend goes, "the greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter." In other words, honor is nothing if you are not true to your heart, and your heart is empty if it does not have love and compassion.
What Mulan did out of love is something I think everyone should take to heart. That's big. It justifies the whole movie, from the beautiful hand-drawn animation to the elegantly painted landscapes, from the powerful Jerry Goldsmith score to the two iconic songs everyone remembers, from the idyllic setting of Mulan's home and garden to the panorama of the capital city. If this movie came out again in theatres, I would not think twice about going and seeing it again to recapture what I had once seen in my childhood, and what is in my mind one of Disney's best films of all time.