“Disney’s Animated Mulan peaks early. Like The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Frozen, the 1998 movie is emotionally front-loaded, gravitating around its “I Want” song. Belted by the Filipina Lea Salonga in the film, “Reflection” ignores the arguably far larger crises at hand — the impending war and the probable death of her aging-conscript father — to anguish about not living up to parental or feminine expectations. A different face painted over her own, Mulan sighs, “If I were truly to be myself, I would break my family’s heart.”
Read the original “Ballad of Mulan,” and you’ll see that Mulan’s need for authentic self-expression is Disney’s invention. For over a millennium, Mulan has been revered in China for her filial sacrifice, not her feminist critiques. The animated movie’s coming-of-age angst, hunky love interest, and princess-y happily-ever-after are American additions that help Mulan’s tale fit better into the Disney format. That doesn’t make the 1998 version any less meaningful; stories are often updated for new eras and audiences.
The powerfully distressed “Reflection” is the best example of why Mulan is beloved as an Asian-American movie — and also why it tanked at the Chinese box office upon release there. The girl-warrior stuff was progressive for the era, arriving 14 years before Katniss Everdeen hit the screen. But the rest of Mulan is never as forceful as “Reflection,” which speaks to the common growing-up-Asian-American experience of filial alienation, of being asked to conform to a set of standards that seems to have been created and make more sense elsewhere…