Ariel, Belle and Pocahontas were just warm-ups. The real liberated Disney woman came in 1998. Her name was Mulan, and she could probably take the rest of the Disney heroines on all at once. Drawing their inspiration from a 2,000-year-old Chinese poem, the studio’s animators spun the tale of a woman warrior stuck in a man’s dynasty.
Mulan isn’t like the other girls in the village. She won’t make much of a bride in the traditional sense, but the traditional thing never appealed to her anyway. When Shan-Yu the Hun scales the Great Wall with his men, the Chinese army is called into service, including Mulan’s elderly father, Fa Zhou. The ailing man is incapable of service, but failure to show up for duty would mean his death. Desperate to help, Mulan secretly cuts her long hair and dons her father’s armor, enlisting herself in the army as a “man” named Ping. Fearing for her safety, the spirits of Mulan’s ancestors send a wisecracking dragon named Mushu to serve as her protector.
In camp, Captain Li Shang whips Mulan/Ping and the other recruits into shape, and soon the small group finds itself in battle with Shan-Yu’s forces. Mulan/Ping single-handedly turns the tide, but her ruse is discovered. Feeling betrayed, Li Shang banishes the girl from the army, sparing her life only because she saved his men. Mulan is left alone and shamed, but when Shan-Yu invades the Emperor’s palace, she knows her destiny lies back in battle.
The classic tale brought the kiddies and their parents to the multiplexes in droves, making Mulan an international hit. The striking animation, catchy songs (including the tongue-in-cheek “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”) and comic relief from Eddie Murphy as Mushu proved a potent mix, and the spunky heroine herself gave little girls around the globe a good excuse to carry samurai swords with their Halloween costumes.