In 1998, Disney broke from its own mold by introducing Mulan, an independent, resilient heroine who isn’t fond of frilly dresses and doesn’t want (or need) to be saved. With a riveting story about risking it all for your family and a rousing soundtrack featuring Lea Salonga and Donny Osmond, Mulan quickly became a modern animated classic. In honor of Disney's live-action remake, revisit the wonder and magic of Mulan with these inspiring facts.
1. Mulan is based on the story of Hua Mulan, a legendary female warrior in China.
Like the Disney character, Hua Mulan is said to have disguised herself as a man in order to spare her father from going to war. The earliest known record of her story was “The Ballad of Mulan,” a Chinese folk song from the 6th century that details Mulan’s 12 years of heroic service in the Chinese army, after which she dutifully returns to her family. According to All That’s Interesting, the epic tale continued to crop up in Chinese songs, plays, poetry, and other works for centuries, especially during periods of unrest when the public needed extra hope and inspiration. However, since various versions of the story have been around for more than 1500 years—and it began as an oral tradition, rather than a written one—nobody knows for sure if Hua Mulan was indeed a real person.
2. Disney’s Mulan wasn’t always quite so independent.
In its earliest stages in the late 1980s, Mulan was going to be a straight-to-video animated short called China Doll, about an oppressed young woman in China who finds happiness after a British soldier sweeps her off her feet (and out of China). None of Disney’s top animators wanted to work on it, and children’s book author and Disney consultant Robert San Souci eventually floated the idea of basing the story on Hua Mulan’s. That garnered enough enthusiasm to get the project out of the incubator, but it would take a fair bit of brainstorming for filmmakers to develop Mulan as a plucky, independent heroine.
“There was another storyline that had her running off to war to escape a bad situation at home, either bad parents or a forced marriage. That didn't work,” co-director Barry Cook told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1998. “Then she was driven by a romance she had with the captain of the soldiers. And that just ruined everything.”
3. Mulan helped launch Christina Aguilera’s singing career.
In late 1997, soon after 16-year-old Christina Aguilera had signed a deal to record a demo with RCA Records, her new music producer got a call from a friend at Disney looking for a young singer who could belt a certain hard-to-hit note: a high E above middle C. He asked Aguilera, who recorded herself singing the same note in Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Run to You” and sent the tape off to Disney. It landed her the gig of singing a pop version of Mulan’s “Reflection” that Disney could (and did) release as a single, which was so successful that Aguilera ended up including it on her self-titled debut album in 1999. Later, Aguilera would call that high E “the note that changed my life.”
4. Mulan was the first feature-length film created by Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida.
In 1989, Disney opened a satellite animation studio right in the backyard of Disney/MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida. Though primarily established to support Disney’s flagship studio in Burbank, California, and create animation for Disney World attractions, Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida also produced three of its own feature-length films—Mulan in 1998, followed by Lilo & Stitch in 2002 and Brother Bear in 2003. According to co-director Tony Bancroft, the distance from Burbank helped the Orlando animators find their own rhythm while making Mulan.
“Early on in the project, they weren't paying much attention to us," Bancroft told the Los Angeles Daily News. “They were concentrating on Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so we had a little more leeway to experiment. There wasn't quite the same amount of pressure."
Bancroft and Cook even made cartoon cameos in the film—they’re the fireworks attendants that Mushu scares off while Mulan is racing to save the emperor.
5. Mulan’s family temple features the names of many artists and animators who worked on the film.
When Mushu strolls through the Fa family temple, banging his gong and shouting at the ancestors to “rise and shine,” the tombstones glow with sparkling Chinese calligraphy, which is actually a list of people who helped bring the movie to life.
6. Mulan was voiced by two actors—one for speaking, and one for singing.
Lea Salonga, the Tony Award-winning star of Miss Saigon, was originally cast as the sole voice of Mulan, but filmmakers realized while recording that the deep voice she used while Mulan was impersonating a man wasn’t quite what they were looking for. The speaking role went to Ming-Na Wen, who had piqued the interest of Mulan’s filmmakers with her narration at the beginning of 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. "When we heard Ming-Na doing that voice-over, we knew we had our Mulan. She has a very likable and lovely voice," producer Pam Coats told Deseret News. It wasn’t the first time Salonga tag-teamed a Disney princess role with another actor; she also provided the singing voice for Linda Larkin’s Jasmine in Aladdin (1992).
7. BD Wong shared the role of General Li Shang with Donny Osmond.
For General Li Shang, Disney cast the speaking role first: BD Wong, a 1988 Tony Award winner who has most recently gained critical acclaim for his guest appearances as Whiterose in Mr. Robot. To find a nice, strong singing voice for Shang, filmmakers unearthed old audition tapes from 1997’s Hercules. They came across one by Donny Osmond—who had lost out on that role because his voice was a little too deep—and decided he’d be a perfect match. Osmond, thrilled at the opportunity, accepted the role immediately and recorded the now-classic tune “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” on a day off from playing Joseph in a touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
8. Jackie Chan voiced Li Shang for the Chinese version of Mulan.
Hong Kong actor, martial artist, and all-around legend Jackie Chan not only dubbed Li Shang for the Mandarin and Cantonese versions of Mulan, he recorded “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” in both languages, too—and even filmed a music video.
9. Mushu was supposed to get his own song in Mulan.
Eddie Murphy’s memorable performance as Mulan’s pint-sized dragon sidekick, Mushu, almost included a song called “Keep ’Em Guessing,” where Mushu taught Mulan how to masquerade as a man. Unfortunately, Murphy wasn’t interested in showing off his singing talents.
“We wrote three different versions of it,” lyricist David Zippel told Entertainment Weekly. “But that’s because we didn’t understand at that point that it wasn’t that [Eddie Murphy] wasn’t liking our songs, he just didn’t want to sing in the film.”
10. Mulan has a habit of touching her hair because Ming-Na Wen does.
Disney animators often pull characteristics from the voice actors when designing their characters, and Ming-Na Wen was no exception: After noticing Wen had a habit of touching her hair, the artists decided that Mulan would, too. “Very true,” she confirmed on Twitter. “I still touch my hair a lot.”
11. Mattel’s Barbie doll version of Mulan was originally much bustier.
Mattel’s first pass at a Mulan doll was basically Mulan’s face on Barbie’s large-chested, tiny-waisted body, which didn’t sit well with producers. They didn’t succeed in convincing the company to create an entirely new figure for Mulan, but they did settle on a compromise: Instead of using Barbie as the model for the doll, Mattel used Midge, the more evenly-proportioned pal of Barbie that Mattel had rolled out in 1963 to prove Barbie dolls didn’t only exist to be sex symbols.
“We were disappointed that we couldn't get our own Mulan body type because we wanted it to be true to the character and true to the culture,'' Coats told the Los Angeles Daily News. “But at least she's less buxom than the original version. I think there will be people who appreciate that.”