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The problem with Mulan 2 - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The problem with Mulan 2
Yeah, yeah. I'm a Disney freak. I just got the Mulan straight-to-video sequel. Whatever. If I can't admit to Disney geekdom at this age, my ego is too bruisable.

And it wasn't a bad movie, really. Like the first Mulan, it had lovely watercolor-style backgrounds, a smart heroine who takes the initiative, and a love interest who has no problem admitting that he likes her for herself. (When Shang is furious with Mulan in the first movie, it's not because she's stepping out of her station in life or whatever, it's because she's been telling him a big, honking lie, and he's hurt.) Mushu the dragon with attitude is still one of the funnier talking animal sidekicks, his attitude of total self-involvement showing up a fake every time things get rough for Mulan. The plot of M2 is trite and predictable (three princesses, three guards, do the math), but that's to be expected in this sort of business. I'll even give them points for dropping the politically correct "Hun" enemy and actually managing to point out that China's enemies on the northern border were, unsurprisingly, Mongols.

The problem is that it's not about anything. It has a plot, certainly, but the opening of the movie has song dealing with balance, the imagery used in it is the yin/yang duality, with the idea that both are needed to achieve harmony. It's a very good message, and one that's interesting to play with, and I don't think they were deliberately saying, "Eh... we're just messing with you. Who needs balance?" But that's exactly what they said.

Because, you see, the real message of the movie that Fa Mulan is always right.

The scenario that's presented is that she and Shang, who have not, after all, known one another for a great length of time, have decided to marry, but as they are on a mission to deliver three princesses to neighboring Kigon for their arranged marriages, the two of them discover that they have some differences in their approach. Mulan's parents have already noticed this, and before they go, they give the young couple a pair of yin/yang pendants and remind them that both are needed to create balance and life. This is good! This could be an actual sort of look at building a relationship. Shocking.

So here are the two people involved:

Mulan is given to breaking the rules and following her heart, using her intuition and rushing into things. "My duty is to my heart," she says.

Shang is given to following the book, to taking things cautiously and using his brain. "Your duty is to the Emperor," he responds. ("The Emperor," in the case of these movies, is no less than China itself--his answer isn't "Be a slavish follower," but "You have a duty to things beyond yourself.")

So far, so good. This is mirrored in the dilemma of the guards and the princesses, who have (naturally) fallen conveniently in love. The princesses are meant to marry to seal a treaty of alliance with Kigon to defend China against the Mongols, but they are quite unhappy and want to be "like other girls," as their musical number tells us. The guards are, well, guards, but are still seeking, as they were in Mulan, "a girl worth fighting for," and have been having abysmal luck in their pursuits until they meet the princesses.

So you have a macro plot and a micro plot, both focusing on the decision between being true to oneself and being true to one's duty--the good of the one versus the good of the many.

It's a classic dilemma, and it would be fair to expect that we'd see each of the characters grappling with it in some way, with the price for being out of balance shown in the plot developments, maybe using the princesses to try different paths--Mei could run off with Yao, going totally with her heart, and end up in the middle of a Mongol battle in the northern provinces that she was supposed to marry to protect (causing a battle scene and a stirring song, probably). Su could refuse Chi'en Po to do her duty, but be miserable. And Ting Ting could find a middle path, maybe choosing to marry Ling but going to negotiate the peace treaty on some other level. (Or something.) It wouldn't have to be anything complex or dire, just a few different ways to look at the issue, while Mulan and Shang figured out what they were doing.

Is this how it went?

Not even close.

All the princesses, at different speeds, give in to the desire to be like other girls. The guards help them escape. Mulan claps and says how happy she is for them (she has already expressed her disapproval of the arranged marriages). Shang tries to stick to the book and talk about duty, but no one listens.

Okay, so when they refuse to listen to him, there's a Mongol invasion, right? Or some kind of reprisal from Kigon?

No, and more of same.

Shang does, in fact, learn to listen to his heart, and rides rashly into the middle of marriage Mulan is going to go into to help the princesses. At which point he denounces rules and Mulan happily cheers him on while Mushu does a trick with a ceremonial dragon. She has been willing to sacrifice herself (while she thought Shang dead for various reasons), but doesn't argue with him at all based on having learned that there is an important treaty to be made. She never once comes to value the concept of duty to something besides the heart--to the nation, to peace, to whatever. The princesses are given permission (by Mushu) to marry whomever they want.

And the issue of the alliance is not raised again.

There is no price whatsoever for saying, "Aw, to heck with China's northern border. Let's snog." There is no compromise made, no balance reached. The essence of the solution is that everyone is taught to think exactly like Mulan, while Mulan learns nothing at all.

One of the most effective moments in the first movie was, after a cheerful song about the trials and tribulations of finding a good woman, coming across a village that had been burned out by Hun hordes, with the implication that the entire population had been slaughtered. The army sent to defend it, including Shang's father, is left dead in the snow. They're fighting a war, and against brutal enemies, and the stakes are absolutely clear. Mulan isn't on a lark. On the interpersonal level, when Mulan's lie is revealed, the response of the men is understandable--she has been a recipient of their trust and good will, and it's revealed that she lied. It's only when she acts as herself that they accept her again. Again, high stakes, if in the personal realm.

What are the stakes in Mulan 2? Nothing. The Emperor says that China will be destroyed by the Mongols if the alliance isn't made, but the only person in the script who cares about that is Shang, who must be taught not to be so stuffy and to follow his heart. Mulan is not faced with a situation like Shang was in the first movie, where she has to be made to understand Shang's motives and realize that she loves and respects him anyway (except in one instance, where she comes to understand that he had been totally misled by Mushu and was acting on incorrect information, which isn't quite the same). No, of course not--she accepts all, she knows all, and she is always right.


Are the people writing these things really so completely unable to conceive of duty to something other than individual love that they don't even realize they betrayed the premise of their own script? That the movie is so far out of balance that it falls over as easily as the little girl Mulan is teaching to fight at the beginning?

It had potential. What happened? Why don't people think?

(And no, I don't think I'm asking too much of a Disney cartoon. The issues were dealt with in the first movie in a very mature and thoughtful manner without becoming too complicated. The same thing happened in The Lion King... serious issues in the theatrical release, simplistic nonsense in the video release. What gives?)
22 comments or Leave a comment
alphabet26 From: alphabet26 Date: February 13th, 2005 12:34 am (UTC) (Link)
the movie is so far out of balance that it falls over as easily as the little girl Mulan is teaching to fight at the beginning

That is absolutely seriously my main problem with it, too. I certainly wouldn't want the princesses to be miserable, but hello? Saving all of China? Yeah, that's a pretty good reason to enter into an arranged marriage. And if they had to keep the whole "arranged marriages are BAD" plot line, all they had to do was NOT MAKE IT ABOUT SAVING ALL OF CHINA. I could have accepted it a lot easier if it had just been the Emperor marrying off his daughters for prestige alone.

Also, that stupid "be like other girls" number? First off, let's remember that "other girl" Mulan was about to be married off by the matchmaker in the first movie, so no go there. And then, also, they want to be like other girls as they're boucing around on soft comfy pillows, with plenty of food, and no worries? Sure, okay.

There's this parody of Titanic where "Geranium" is complaining about how hard her life is because she's rich, and how she wants to be poor, and her servant goes, "You want to be poor? Are you half crazy? I work eighteen hours a day, for a mere shilling a week; then I return to a freezing room the size of a closet! Oh, I would pack myself in excrement if it meant just staying one degree warmer."

That's pretty much how I felt about that little "be like other girls" number.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 13th, 2005 01:52 am (UTC) (Link)
I could have accepted it a lot easier if it had just been the Emperor marrying off his daughters for prestige alone.

Or if the girls had, in the tradition of Mulan herself, taken on their father's mantle and, before running off, seen to it that a treaty was made, just one that didn't include the arranged marriages. It would have been anachronistic, of course, but at least it would have paid some attention to what the arranged marriages were for, and shown the princesses to be, well, girls worth fighting for. I was seriously expecting that, at the very least... dropping the whole "China's in danger!" plot was quite troubling. I mean, I was a little troubled by Anastasia and Dmitri running off together in Anastasia and turning her back on the crown (right about when the real party was starting back in Russia, too), even though that had to conform to the inconvenient fact that Anastasia didn't reappear, having learned lessons about living among the people, and make an attempt to overthrow the Communists. This was so much worse.

Also, that stupid "be like other girls" number? First off, let's remember that "other girl" Mulan was about to be married off by the matchmaker in the first movie, so no go there. And then, also, they want to be like other girls as they're boucing around on soft comfy pillows, with plenty of food, and no worries? Sure, okay.

I basically took that as the girls not having the first frocking clue what "other girls" did with their time. Seems they wanted to be like other rich (but not royal) boys.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 13th, 2005 01:43 am (UTC) (Link)
I wondered if different people were responsible (and kind of assumed it), but that doesn't explain the change in the entire tone.
subsidaryforge From: subsidaryforge Date: February 13th, 2005 01:39 am (UTC) (Link)


Cause and effect has always made for more interesting film than "so and so does what they want. It's a-okay. Everyone's glad they do it. The end." You can't have one character right all the time, while the lesser characters adjust their viewpoints to align with the first and that's the movie. There's no real conflict in that, because there's too much inevitability and not enough realism. Sometimes, differences are irreconcilable. No, usually differences are irreconcilable in the sense that someone's worldview is never going to perfectly match you. There are going to be traits and issues you have that other people think are silly, irresponsible, stiff (which is, after all, worse than irresponsible), unreasonable. And you may well decide to subscribe to something only to find it's dead wrong.

But hey, you know, let's keep it light and fantasy for the kiddies. Never mind that Mulan and Lion King said some very serious things about duty and consequence. About "getting caught."
riah_chan From: riah_chan Date: February 13th, 2005 02:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Now I will know what I am getting into when I get roped into watching this with my neice. When I saw the previews, I was unsure about whether or not I would like it... when I saw the princesses, I was like, "Oh no! It's going to be some preachy thing about being true to your hormones!" and I knew that the princesses would never go through with the arrainged marriages. Blah. At least Shang is cute...
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 13th, 2005 02:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, Shang is even cuter than in the original. He's what makes it eminently watchable. And he gets wet and takes his hair down.
purplerebecca From: purplerebecca Date: February 13th, 2005 07:37 am (UTC) (Link)
"preachy thing about being true to your hormones!"
All these stories preaching "Be true to your heart" essentially state that "you are the most important thing in the universe, everything else can just go hang." Welfare of others? ha! Unselfishness and duty, who needs that?
The fact is that adolescent feelings are often telling you to do stuff that's a BAD IDEA and you have to learn to judge, discern, and control them.
I'm a big, overly-romantic proponent of Love, but you have to use your head and realize that feelings aren't the end-all authority.
Use your head AND your heart.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 13th, 2005 07:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Use your head AND your heart.

Which was exactly what the message was set up to be... only they totally and completely dropped the ball! Normally, if it was just a bad premise, I'd shrug and say, "Oh, well." It's mostly that the script made a kind of theme promise, then reneged.
katinka31 From: katinka31 Date: February 13th, 2005 03:04 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, you've really got to wonder who thought arranged marriage was an exciting theme for a kids' movie. I LOVED the first Mulan, but I could barely sit through this one. In fact, I didn't sit through it. :P
From: ex_olivehorn645 Date: February 13th, 2005 03:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Hmm. I didn't much care for the first Mulan movie, and after watching The Little Mermaid 2, I swore off all Disney sequels anyway. I wrote a paper about the original Mulan for my Psychology of Women class, and I was pretty disappointed in the movie, particularly the ending when Mulan tells the Emperor that oh, her place really is back home. I don't remember all of what I wrote... I might poke around and see if I still have the paper, but it's probably long gone.
missfahrenheit From: missfahrenheit Date: February 13th, 2005 11:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are two Disney sequels that are acceptable.
1) The Rescuers Down Under. It was at least good enough for a theatrical release.
2) Toy Story 2, but we have Pixar to thank for that anyway.
sep12 From: sep12 Date: February 13th, 2005 04:44 am (UTC) (Link)
A couple of semesters ago, my World Civ China professor told us that there was a REAL Mulan somewhere in Chinese history, and she really did get killed. (Not sure if it's true or not, I never researched it, too busy.) As much as I liked the first movie, I kinda don't enjoy it quite as much now, knowing that (maybe) a real girl died, and that in some places women still would be killed for doing what Mulan did in the movie. *SIGH*

As I have not seen the sequel yet, I will not pass judgement on it, but I do agree with the person (sorry, I don't remember who it was) who said that it was disappointing for Mulan to tell the emperor her place realy WAS at home. Why is it so hard to find strong role models for young girls in entertainment? I don't even have kids yet. and it's discouraging. :(
trinity_clare From: trinity_clare Date: February 13th, 2005 05:31 am (UTC) (Link)
Keep in mind that with the Lion King movies, the first one was Hamlet while the second was Romeo & Juliet. Much less plot to work with. And then they went and gave both movies happy endings, because this is after all Disney. You know what I want? I want movies that are more like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or the Little Mermaid, where people die and there are the most fantastic villains and it scares the crap out of you even if you're not five years old. I still can't stand some parts of those movies, because the memories I have of watching them for the first time as a little kid still scare me. (You will also note that nobody has dared make a sequel to either Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. I think people would go after them with torches and pitchforks.)
sreya From: sreya Date: February 13th, 2005 05:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Darn, and here I'd actually been thinking Mulan 2 looked at least okay. :~/

I like your proposed plot line, using each of the three princesses to explore a slightly different choice. And yes, if Shang learned to follow his heart a little, then Mulan should have learned to bring in some sense of greater duty -- although, it sounds like maybe they tried that with Mulan willing to sacrifice herself to another marriage, and just didn't follow through very well. Although I didn't see it, so it may just be the way you're explaining it.

As far as the comment objections to "my place is home" in the first movie... well, the trouble there is that it's traditional for the hero OR HEROINE to return home after the great adventure, to return to the beginning with their newfound and hard-one knowledge. It's a cycle that should be completed. I don't think it was a case of "a woman's place is in the kitchen", because even when she went home, she brought her prizes and emphasized that she'd brought honor to her family by becoming a heroine. Her father's response was that he loves her for being herself, not just because she did something fantastic. I don't see anything wrong with that, really. It could have easily been a boy who'd taken his father's place in the army, then returned home to his family. (In fact, it makes sense with the kind of army Mulan had been in - these aren't full-time soldiers, for the most part. They go when needed for war, then return home when it's over.) I just think this is another case of making up a gender issue where it's unwarranted.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 13th, 2005 06:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd have to agree with that. The final step of a hero's journey is going home--the return with the elixir. As long as he or she is in the "special world" (the war, in Mulan's case), the story hasn't come to a close. Now, she might have gone to some different home--she could have married then and gone to Shang's home, or been made some sort of official in her home province or whatever, but whatever she did would have to involve taking up life in the ordinary world again. Her ordinary world was her home village. And I will give M2 one thing--it definitely implies that she brought the "elixir." The staid and strict rules of the game that had made her feel so straitjacketed really have changed at the beginning of M2, as the boys and girls go to her for lessons, and she continues to be admired.

Another thing I like--like I said it wasn't a bad movie, per se--was her parents, who are still delightful, if anachronistically of equal status in a medieval Chinese home. They have a lovely couple-ness about them.
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: February 13th, 2005 04:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who feels this way! Mulan is my favorite Disney film, and one of the things I love about it is that the movie's great love is between Mulan and her father. When she breaks the rules, it's not for herself, but for her father. Contrast this with Ariel, who goes to Ursula out of defiance for her father, to stike her own path.

I like Ariel and Triton, but I was always bothered by the fact that he signed his kingdom and magic over to Ursula, leaving all his people under her dominion. Even though this makes him a loving dad, it's just irresponsible for a king. Ariel never has to face the consequences of this, really, since Eric kills Ursula about five minutes later. But Mulan rides off to become a soldier knowing the penalty if she were discovered, and when she is, she doesn't try to escape; she bows her head and accepts the consequence of her choice. That impressed me; we don't need a big speech about how it's unfair, because everyone watching knows it's unfair. What really makes Mulan heroic is that she does what's right even if it means paying the highest penalty.

Plus Mulan is the first Disney heroine we actually laugh at. Nobody laughs at Snow White or Aurora or Cinderella. These characters are the feminine "ideal" of their times, and that was not something you could laugh at. Mulan is funny whether trying to be a bride or a soldier; we can see her imperfections, but we also see her intelligence and determination and cheer her on. She's a more realistic feminine character, and she's still a heroine. I see that as a great example for girls.
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 13th, 2005 05:47 am (UTC) (Link)
I know the folktale of Mulan although I'm not familiar with the historical person. The version I heard had her going in disguise to preserve her family's honor, serving ten years (without being found out), rising to general, and finally only telling her old friends the truth once she had retired to the countryside and resumed her true identity. Although the version I read ended happily, I could believe a version where Mulan tells or is found out and has to pay the price even if she is also honored for what she did. It would fit with some other folktales I read, making the character pay for breaking the rules even while honoring her for why she did it and what she accomplished.

I saw part of Mulan II and had to leave the room. The anachronisms were much worse than in the first movie, but I might have been able to deal with them. Like you, I just couldn't handle the duty vs. love scenario that was being set up.
jesspallas From: jesspallas Date: February 13th, 2005 08:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, yes, agreed! "We were going to invade you but in spite of the fact your brides have buggered off, the big scary dragon says NO so hey... Never mind."

*shakes head*

That definately bugged me too. I suppose it's to be expected that Disney sequels never live up to the originals - the only ones I've ever bothered to watch twice are the Aladdin ones and I've never pretended they were even close to the match of the film; for reasons I can't even explain, I just like them. *shrug* But this one just seemed so convenient and predictable and the ending... Well I think my feelings there have pretty much been covered by everyone else. I watched the bonus features on the DVD and it said in there that apparently in the original script the girls were in fact pretending to like the boys early on in order to escape. And yes that would have really screwed up the duty idea but it might have made them more interesting! ;)
leeflower From: leeflower Date: February 13th, 2005 07:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
yeah I loved the first one, but I knew that if the sequel were going to be decent, it wouldn't be straight to vid. I'll watch it on Disney Chanel when they get sick of trying to get people to pay them for it.

I wouldn't watch it at all, but Shang's hot and I really want to see how they relate to each other.

If fanfic based on Disney movies weren't inherantly an afront to all things good in the universe (I don't know why it is, it just is), I'd give up and go get my Shang/Mulan fix that way.
rose_in_shadow From: rose_in_shadow Date: February 14th, 2005 12:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Mulan is given to breaking the rules and following her heart, using her intuition and rushing into things. "My duty is to my heart," she says.

Shang is given to following the book, to taking things cautiously and using his brain. "Your duty is to the Emperor," he responds. ("The Emperor," in the case of these movies, is no less than China itself--his answer isn't "Be a slavish follower," but "You have a duty to things beyond yourself.")

That's one of the reasons why I love Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. The tension is there for the princess to follow her heart and stay with the guy, but she knows that there is something more important than her personal desires. There's this great line at the end of the movie...

"Were I not entirely aware of my duty to my family and to my country, I would not have come back tonight... or indeed ever again!"

I'm not saying that to never follow your heart is a good idea, but in real life there are consequences that (obviously) M2 did not bother to follow up on.

Anyway, this was just a random post from a new friend but an old admirer of your fanfic. I've read your stuff on Fanfic.net and long, long ago on your Darth Vader site. So, hi! *waves*
lingzer0 From: lingzer0 Date: February 14th, 2005 10:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Aw, to heck with China's northern border. Let's snog."

That made me giggle.

I think what Disney is doing now is pasting modern values on other time periods. Back then, no one would have blinked an eye at an arranged marriage. Heck, not even until the 1900s would it be real common for the woman to have a choice in the matter. And, of course, if you are a well-raised Princess, you know your Duty.

But of course, that is so un-Empowered. And they need a happy ending, of course.
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