Friday, July 23, 2010


Disney princesses - sorry, Disney Princesses, since it's a brand - are as a whole pretty useless. Their stories tend to revolve around getting a man, keeping a man, being saved by a man, and generally bending to the will of a man. Then, at the end of the day, all they get is a pretty dress. Yet, the princess formula is an integral part of Disney's success, and something which they have made a lot of money on. Still, I imagine some people within the Disney empire was getting annoyed by how completely useless the princesses are, for the most part. Hence, Mulan.

Mulan is counted among the pantheon of Disney Princesses, but unlike, well, all of them, she isn't useless. Hell, the entire film is about how women aren't useless (and possibly also about being a lesbian, but that's reading a lot into it). There's a society that doesn't value women, so Mulan becomes a man and joins the army so her father doesn't have to. Then she kicks everyone's ass and kills thousands of enemy soldiers. She also scores a man, but that part is mostly pushed to the last five minutes because that's really not the focus here.

She essentially beats all odds by not only being a Disney Princess who doesn't suck, but also possibly the most badass Disney character. She certainly has the highest body count, at the very minimum. Her actions are pretty much presented as the pinnacle of badassery, with there being frequent mentions of her being a girl, just to point out that the ladies are doing it for themselves. It's a break from the convention of useless women, a female Disney character who does more than fill out a dress and pick a handsome yet earthy guy.

Of course, it's a Disney film, so formula can't be abandoned completely. Are there catchy songs? Are there ever! Do we get wacky animal sidekicks? Oh baby, ladies and gentlemen, Eddie Murphy as a pointless dragon! It's also got that trademark very pretty Disney animation, which is a highlight, but even as the story breaks some conventions, it strictly adheres to others, and it still does the "heroes have to end the story together" thing that was pioneered a mere 1000 years ago.

Actually, I wonder how much better this might be if it wasn't Disney. The story is fairly violent - war, China fighting off the huns, etc. - and there are several cuts and scenes where you could see the filmmakers straining under the restrictions. A full on bloody spectacle could easily be made - and made well - with this material, and it often feels about a half step too safe.

Still, it was progress, and proof that someone at Disney could make an interesting female character. Yes, they had to dress her up as a man, but still, somewhere in that land of dormant franchises and elaborate theme parks, a nugget of feminism remained. A tiny nugget, that never really got a chance to flourish as the studio was confused by changing tastes and Pixar generally doing a lot better job of filmmaking than they were, which lead to a pile of bad decisions and worse movies, but a nugget. A nugget obscured by the Disney Princesses brand, but a nugget. Hopefully people see beyond the surface glitz of Sleeping Beauty, the naivety of Snow White, the balls to the wall stupidity of Ariel, and the general pointlessness of Jasmine to find that nugget.

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