“True to Your Heart”
Family Honor and Personal Authenticity in Disney’s Mulan
George A. Dunn
Disney’s animated Mulan was not a hit in mainland China. Despite being one of the studio’s most financially successful and critically acclaimed films, it was a box-office flop in the country where its legendary heroine was born. The movie’s feisty protagonist may have defeated the Hun army almost singlehandedly—aided only by a trio of crossdressing male comrades, her wise-cracking dragon sidekick, and a cricket—but, somehow, she failed to conquer the hearts of mainland Chinese audiences.
That’s not to say that the Chinese public doesn’t love the Mulan of legend, the brave young woman who disguised herself as a man to take the place of her aging father when he was called up in the draft. Making its first appearance in a 6th century poem, Mulan’s story has been retold countless times in the form of poems, novels, plays, operas, and, in recent years, nearly a dozen film and television series from Chinese studios. It is one of China’s most beloved folktales, yet Disney’s Mulan was unable to cash in on that love, despite the studio’s success on the Chinese mainland with such earlier releases as The Lion King and Toy Story.
To be fair, Mulan’s poor box office wasn’t entirely the movie’s fault. As Disney’s Mulan learned when bathing in the river near camp, timing is everything. The movie’s release date in China wasn’t exactly auspicious. Because the Chinese government insisted on keeping Mulan out of theatres until after the Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year), Disney’s first Chinese heroine didn’t hit the multiplexes until after the holiday, just as children were returning to school. That’s not unlike releasing a movie in the United States right after the end Christmas holidays. The year was 1999, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and the government wanted to spotlight its own domestic movie industry during the prime moviegoing season, rather than cede its screens to the marauding armies of Hollywood (the cultural equivalent of the Huns). By the time Mulan finally made it to Chinese theaters, so many pirated copies were in circulation that not even the luckiest cricket could undo the damage.
Yet, more may have been in play than just bad timing. Part of the problem may have been Disney’s depiction of its heroine. The movie did an impressive job of creating the look of China with its gorgeous images of the Great Wall, Chinese lanterns, pagodas, calligraphy, fireworks, a lineage temple, and more. Still, some viewers found Disney’s Mulan far too Western in her attitudes and behavior. In turns out that, China’s ancient heroine of filial piety and patriotism had, in the process of being translated from one culture to another, acquired a new motivation unknown to the original Mulan. Though she loves her family and her country no less than the Mulan of Chinese legend, Disney’s Mulan also has a burning need to express her authentic self, to break free of the constricting social role she has been assigned by tradition. As joyfully celebrated in the movie’s theme song, she has an overriding need to be “true to her heart.”
Read the rest of this chapter from Disney and Philosophy here.