Thursday, 9 September 2010

History or Legend? A Look at Disney's Mulan.

On 9th September, Alex von Tunzelmann wrote an article looking back of Disney’s Mulan, a 1998 animated film that retells the fifth century Chinese Ballad of Mulan. The article can be found here (, and a version of the ballad here ( The article did not look too kindly on the film, criticising it primarily for its historical content and portrayal of the Hun armies. However, there are several points in this article that I feel need addressing, as the writer paint the film in a far worse light than it deserves.

In the second section of the article, ‘War’, Tunzelmann reminds us that the enemies in this Disney film, the Hun, never expanded their rule into the area of China that Mulan came from, even at its largest under Attila in 434-453.  She does point out that there are possible links with Xiongnu tribe, but that the wars against China that there were engaged with happened a few centuries before the time of Mulan. While I cannot dispute this, my problem is that Tunzelmann seems to think that Disney has a huge concern with historical accuracy. The presence of the talking dragon, which Tunzelmann points out in the ‘Violence’ section of the article, shows as much, and I’m sure that the fifth century Mulan never had her general sing through her army training. On the matter of the army that invades China in the Disney movie, it’s likely that the makers of the film simply took a well-known tribe, namely the Hun, and either extended the area they tried to control for the purpose of the film, or used them as a replacement for the lesser-known Xiongnu tribe. Either way, the Hun of Disney’s Mulan do not seem to be the Hun of history. After all, if they were, chances are Attila himself would be leading them to battle.

Fig. I.: Shan Yu, the villain of the film.

The topic of the Hun carries over into the third section of the article, ‘Race’. There are two points here that stand out; firstly, there is the way the Huns are depicted in the film. Tunzelmann describes the Hun leader, Shan Yu, as having “sunken yellow eyes, vampire teeth and massive claws”. To me, this point seems very similar to these raised by the big-screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, which also has an army fighting against an invading army. At the time of its release, it led to cries of racism among Middle-Eastern viewers because of the Persian’s depiction. Both are very similar, not least in their apparently racist portrayal of the invading forces. It is this, however, that is key to understanding these portrayals. Both films are told from the view of those defending their homelands against those who would take control of them. The way they would view their enemies is as monstrous forces, not quite human because of their strange  features and armour. Secondly, though pointing out that the antagonist Shan Yu is definitely fictional, Tunzelmann suggests a link between him and the Chinese warrior Xiang Yu (who fought against the Hun in the third century), or even a member of the Xiongnu tribe. The inability to place Shan Yu supports the idea that the Hun of the film are either fictional or an exaggeration of a real life tribe shows that Disney were not completely concerned with the historical accuracy of the film.

Fig. II.: Mulan, is disguise, during the 'avalanche' scene.

In the ‘Violence’ section of the article, Tunzelmann looks at the death involved in war, and how Disney’s Mulan portrays it. In particular, she points out the avalanche scene, in which Mulan destroys a large number of Hun soldiers by burying them alive. While it is killing, as Tunzelmann says, it is important to note that is it not an incredibly violent death. These soldiers are likely frozen or, at worse crushed, to death. At least five soldiers survive, however, as we see in the aftermath of the battle as they emerge alongside Shan Yu. None of them are visibly hurt, suggesting that this was quite a humane death. Even Shan Yu’s death during the climax of the film, in which he is killed by fireworks, is nowhere near as violent as many other Disney deaths, such as Scar being ripped apart by Hyenas in The Lion King, or Count Frollo being burnt alive in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While all these things happen off-screen, they are still more brutal than a death in an actual war.

It is also worth noting that this article looks at the characterisation of Mulan herself. In the ‘Violence’ section, Tunzelmann makes a point of saying how “Disney heroines do not whip out swords and hack people to death in a frenzied bloodlust”. Later on, in the final section, she also says how “Mulan herself is a clear improvement on the standard-issue drippy princess”, and how different Mulan is to princesses such as Snow White. However, to me Mulan does work as a Disney heroine. Very few of the Disney princesses are actually ‘drippy’, especially those made after 1990. Jasmine, in Aladdin (1992), is strong willed and willing to help the hero defeat the villainous Jafar. Pocahontas, the titular character in the 1995 film, may be based on a real character, but is still a strong female character and a Disney heroine. All three of these have also been introduced to the 'Disney Princess' franchise, meaning that they all, including Mulan, now belong to the same group as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. The idea that Disney heroines do not use a sword to fight is true, especially not in war, and this is what makes Mulan so empowered. Though it is possible to view the sword as a form of masculinity, it is important to note that she defeats the Hun forces as both a man, using the avalanche mentioned above, but is only able to stop them one and for all during the final scene, where she had surrendered her disguise and fights as a woman. She also does not ‘hack people to death’, rather using her sword to defend herself until she can defeat her foes in a different manner. Mulan is certainly not a traditional Disney heroine, but rather part of a new generation that began very recently.

  • Fig. I.:  Copyright
  • Fig. II.: Copyright