Mulan

"You said you trust Ping. Why is Mulan any different?"

The girl who took her ailing father’s place in the war and ends up saving China, Mulan’s story was not just heart-warming but an inspiration to generations of children who are finding themselves. Behind this iconic character is Ming-Na Wen, who brought the heart and soul of a warrior to life with her voice.

It is hard to believe Ming-Na’s long career in voice acting started with Mulan and it was all thanks to her first film, The Joy Luck Club. Before Ming-Na landed the role of Mulan, Lea Salonga who was then the singing voice of Princess Jasmine (Aladdin), was considered for the role, but directors were not convinced by her impersonation of Ping. For Ming-Na, her narration of the Swan Feather at the beginning of the Joy Luck Club impressed the filmmakers - her likable and lovely voice was what they were looking for in their heroine. Ming-Na then became the voice of Mulan while Lea was her singing voice. Ming-Na’s iconic performance landed her the 1998 Annie Award in the category of Outstanding Achievement in Voice Acting.

Adapted from an ancient Chinese folklore, the Ballad of Mulan, Disney’s Mulan was ahead of her time when it was released in 1998. Besides being Disney’s first animated story about a Chinese girl, her strong, independent nature, and story of shaping her own destiny was very different from the then popular damsel in distress like Cinderella.

 

But the writers did not intend for Mulan to have such empowering characteristics from the start. The initial writing of Mulan was meant to be a romantic comedy, with Mulan being betrothed to Li Shang, a man she has never met. On her betrothal day, Mulan was to shatter a stone tablet with her destiny carved into by her father and leave home, in search of her own path. When Chris Sanders (Screenplay) found out the direction Mulan’s story was going, he urged Pam Coats (Producer) instead to stay faithful to the original Ballad - where Mulan leaves home to protect her father. They eventually decided to give Mulan a more independent and selfless identity, shaping the Mulan we love today.

When production started in 1994, with Mulan being her first voice-acting job, Ming-Na had no idea what the recording process would be like. It was only then did Ming-Na found out she would be recording on her own, with just the readers. And because of that, till today, “Mulan has never met Mushu” as Ming-Na and Eddie Murphy (voice of Mushu) have never met. 

 

When Ming-Na first stepped into the recording studio, thinking that she would be portraying a 16, 17 year old girl, Ming-Na spoke in a higher pitch, shocking the directors. 

“The directors said: “What are you doing?” And I was like, I’m being Mulan. And the directors said, no, we hired you for your voice and we love your voice.”

- Ming-Na Wen, Denver Pop Culture Con 2019

For the next three years, Ming-Na worked closely with the directors and readers, creating the image of Mulan. While she records, the directors would observe and sketch, adding some of Ming-Na’s mannerisms into Mulan - the most iconic being Ming-Na touching her hair. So much so that even her mother says she sees her, instead of Mulan, in the iconic father-daughter scene under the magnolia tree.

“I touch my hair all the time, something they must have captured in the recording sessions. I remember my mom turning to me and saying, “Wow, I saw you.” She didn’t see the animated character anymore. She saw her daughter in those images.”

- Ming-Na Wen, NY Times, 2020

 

The original Ballad of Mulan emphasised on the value of Filial Piety, an important virtue in the Chinese culture. As Mulan takes her father’s place in war, we learn what a child would do to protect her parents and family. While Disney stayed true to the origin of Mulan, what most of us relate to was her journey of self-discovery. 

“It’s about family, it’s about loving your parents in a way where you want to protect them as much as they’re protecting you, and then ultimately, it’s about a young girl trying to fit in. And I think we’ve all grown up with that. That’s why so many people identify with her… we’re all trying to fit in, we’re all trying to figure out what our capabilities are, what our potential is and the best thing, the dream for all of us is that we find the hero or the heroine in ourselves. And that’s the kind of takeaway with Mulan’s story is that if you just follow your heart, if you just believe in yourself and you believe in your truth, that you will be the hero or heroine of your own story. And I think that’s, that’s sort of like a forever story for everyone.”

- Ming-Na Wen, Mulan #GoldOpen Q&A with Original Animated Cast, 2020

 

No one could have foreseen the impact Mulan would have on the generations of kids that grew up watching it. But the most unexpected was the way Mulan represented the LGBTQ+ community, giving those who are often told to hide their true self, something to hold on to. From Mulan cutting her hair, to dressing up as a boy to join the army, and even getting her friends to dress up as drag to save the emperor, these little plotlines gave recognition to the LGBTQ+ community the movie never intended to. 

“Like the LGBTQ community, there are kids that come up to me and they are crying because for them, they… it’s sort of like an extra perk of the story, that I don’t think Disney even… that wasn’t their objective. But the fact that there was a girl, then she becomes a boy and she fights, they were able to take some of that image and hold on to it as their own, that it represented them in some way. And it’s just, it’s incredible.” 

- Ming-Na Wen, Mulan #GoldOpen Q&A with Original Animated Cast, 2020

Reflection

Written and Producer Matthew Wilder, David Zippel

Sang by Lea Salonga (Mulan 1998)

Original Soundtrack by Christina Aguilera

 

“When will my reflection show who I am inside?” 

 

Mulan’s Reflection sang it’s way to our hearts, and even more so for the LGBTQ+ community. Reflecting everyone’s constant battle between who they are expected to be and who they want to be, the song represents the struggle of children who grew up queer, for being true with themselves would sometimes lead to the end of relationships close to them and prejudice from society. While Reflections rips open the closet door we hide in, it made us feel seen and understood. Paired with Mulan’s story, it gave us the strength to believe and work towards a better future for ourselves and the next generation.

Despite Mulan’s popularity and the love and support she receives from fans, Ming-Na always attributes Mulan’s success to the people behind the scene - Barry Cook, Tony Bancroft, Pam Coats, Rita Hsiao, Chris Sanders just to name a few. Ming-Na applauded their efforts to research about the folklore, and the Chinese culture, while making sure the Asian Americans were cast in key roles, which were back then, often overlooked. Aside from the crew, Ming-Na often brings in Lea Salonga as well, crediting her beautiful portrayal of “Reflections” that touched so many of us. 

 

For the past two decades, Mulan’s tale has proven that an empowering, relatable character can transcend culture, ethnicity and time, and become an inspiration to all. In one way or another, everyone seems to be able to see a part of themselves in Mulan, and her story gave us the strength and belief that we can overcome all odds and achieve our dreams when we believe in ourselves.

Reflection: The Face Behind Mulan

Ming-Na Wen discusses Mulan with her daughter, Michaela Zee - how her roles helped her embrace her Chinese heritage and her impact as Mulan on people.  

Mulan in Other Projects

After Mulan 1998, Ming-Na returned many times over the next 20 years to voice Mulan in various projects, including a direct to video sequel, Mulan 2 that was released in 2004. Ming-Na also lends her voice to Mulan’s appearance in many Disney games such as Kingdom Hearts series and Disney Infinity. 

“I feel a little possessive in that way about wanting to keep Mulan consistent, wanting to have her be voiced by me. She’s my baby. They’ll ask, “Can we use your voice for a stuffed animal?” and I’ll say, “Yeah, sure.” I have such a loyalty to Mulan’s fans that I will always say yes.”

- Ming-Na Wen, NY Times, 2020

In 2018, animated Mulan made the big screen again, this time with the other Disney Princesses in Ralph Breaks the Internet. Ming-Na, together with the original voices of the princesses, returned to voice their respective roles. Fans were excited to see the princesses band together to help Vanellope save Ralph! 

 

Michaela Zee, Ming-Na’s daughter, also joined her in Ralph Breaks the Internet, voicing as Nafisa, one of the girls at the arcade. 

 

Ming-Na Wen at Ralph Breaks the Internet Premiere 2018

 

Dress: Jovani | Hair & Make Up: Terri Apanasewicza | Jewelry: Zameer Kassam | Clutch: Tadashi Shoji

A Place for Mulan

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Disney partnered with Ming-Na to read A Place for Mulan as a little treat for fans during this trying period.

MULAN 2020

When Disney first announced the live-action remake of Mulan in 2015, fans were excited to find out if the original voice of Mulan would be having a role in it. Some went as far as saying Ming-Na herself should play Mulan. Deeply honored by the fans’ reaction, Ming-Na has expressed interest to be part of the live-action remake. 

“I hope they allow me to have a cameo in it, just for the fans and for myself. I think that would be not just respectful but a lovely gesture to keep that connection going…”

- Ming-Na Wen, Kore Spotlight, Character Media

On March 9,  2020, Ming-Na made an appearance at the world premiere of Mulan with her family. Dressed in a beautiful floral dress by her friend, Mark Zunino, Ming-Na looked like a goddess. Fans were excited to see the original Mulan attend the premiere and were quick to draw a comparison to Ming-Na’s look at the Mulan 1998 premiere. After 22 years, our Mulan has not aged a single day! 

 

But the question remains, will we be seeing our beloved Original Mulan in the live-action feature?
 

Ming-Na Wen at Mulan 2020 Premiere

Dress: Mark Zunino | Hair & Make Up: Terri Apanasewicza | Jewelry: Erica Courtney | Beauty Assistant: Kalsey Hyder

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Scheduled for a global premiere on March 27,  2020, Mulan was unfortunately delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. After many failed attempts to reschedule it’s theatre launch, Disney made an unconventional decision to premiere Mulan on Disney+, their very own streaming platform and certain theatres around the world on September 4,  2020.

 

Fans were not disappointed when Ming-Na finally made her grand entrance towards the end of the movie. Credited as the “Esteemed Guest”, Ming-Na walked down the aisle of the throne room, with “Reflections” playing in the background and proceeded to introduce Hua Mulan (played by Liu Yifei) to the Emperor (played by Jet Li), signifying passing the baton from one Mulan to the other. We can all agree, it was a well-deserved tribute to our Original Mulan.

"It was incredibly surreal and so much fun to see this animation that I've been a part of for over two decades come to life. With the throne room and all the characters, it was really magical. For me, it was really just being present and representing where it all began with Disney."

- Ming-Na Wen, Entertainment, 2020

 

This very special cameo was very much inspired by the fans. Seeing fans’ support for the movie and their desire to see Ming-Na be part of the live-action remake, Ming-Na got her manager and agent to get in touch with Jason Reed, the Producer of Mulan 2020, for a possible cameo. 

“I'm always, always, always about the fans. I love them dearly and I'm a huge fan myself and a total geek. So I know what would get me excited with all the different genres that I love. That, to me, would've been a really lovely Easter egg for the fans.”

- Ming-Na Wen, Insider, 2020

 

Turns out, not only was Jason Reed eager for Ming-Na to be part of the movie but made sure Ming-Na’s daughter, Michaela Zee, was included as well. Yes, Michaela was part of Mulan 2020, as one of the palace girls, reacting to what Mulan has said to the Emperor.

But this much-anticipated cameo almost did not happen. Ming-Na was initially slated to play the potential mother-in-law in the matchmaking scene. But due to her commitment with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. then, it was difficult for her to free up a month to film her part in New Zealand. 

“The producers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just threw up their hands: “We can’t lose you for a month!” I totally understood, and I’m always very Zen about this stuff. I said, “Look, if it was meant to me be, it was meant to be. We all tried, and it’s too bad.”

- Ming-Na Wen, The New York Times, 2020

 

Jason Reed, and Director, Niki Caro, instead came up with a brilliant idea of having Ming-Na in a cameo role, where she introduces Mulan to the Emperor. With the filming time shortened to a week, Ming-Na and Michaela were secretly whisked off to New Zealand to film their top-secret cameo.

“We flew out to New Zealand and as soon as we landed we were doing hair and make-up tests, costume, putting on the costume, we went through three different changes with the hair and the make-up to figure out… it was insane… and we were trying to do the PR. So literally, that scene was shot with… like guerilla filmmaking style speed and it was quite a whirlwind, so I’m so thankful”

- Ming-Na Wen, Mulan #GoldOpen Q&A with Original Animated Cast, 2020

The Making of The Esteemed Guest

Niki Caro has an incredible vision of transforming Ming-Na into the real-live animated Mulan. Costume designer, Bina Daigeler, together with Make-up and Hair Extraordinaire Denise Kum worked their magic, and after trying out three different looks with Ming-Na, they managed to adapt animated Mulan’s matchmaking outfit into the Esteemed Guest dress, completing Ming-Na’s look with her signature lopsided bun! 

IMG_-knzkll.jpg

 

With little time to prepare for her role, Ming-Na was nervous but wanted to make sure she got the Esteemed Guest right. Interacting with Donnie Yen (plays Commander Tung) on set, given his extensive experience in filming period pieces, Ming-Na thought she could get some advice from Donnie on how she should bow to the Emperor. To which Donnie merely replied in Cantonese: “Ngo M Zi Dou A! (I don’t know!)”

“So I had to summon all my memories of growing up watching these incredible, epic movies that my mom would take us to in Chinatown, when I lived in New York. There was a certain essence to the way these women walked that was quite different than, say, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

- Ming-Na Wen,  The New York Times, 2020

Disney's Mulan | Easter Egg Featurette | The Original Mulan

 

Despite her excitement, Ming-Na was actually very nervous about her surprise cameo. 

“Y’know how like the Asians in all of us we still have a little bit of that insecurity thing going on on the inside right? So I’m sitting there going - oh gosh I hope people recognise me, god I hope this moment doesn't just go by, fall flat, nobody notices. I was just like so worried about it.”

- Ming-Na Wen, Mulan #GoldOpen Q&A with Original Animated Cast, 2020

But Ming-Na did not have to worry, as her appearance on the big screen was met with the loudest cheer during the world premiere back in March. Twitter and Instagram were also flooded with overwhelming responses from fans around the world on September 4, when the movie finally premiered. During the same Facebook Live with Open House, Lea Salonga (singing voice of Mulan) and James Hong (voice of Chi Fu) joked that Ming-Na needn’t have to worry at all, as fans would have recognized her voice the moment she spoke. 

 

Being our Original Mulan and a huge supporter of any projects that support Asian/Minority representation, Ming-Na praised Niki Caro for doing an amazing job with Mulan 2020, while honoring the animated film. She believes Mulan 2020 will continue to inspire the next generation with strength and hope, that you can be whomever you want to be. 

 

You can now catch Mulan 2020 on Disney+, iTune, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and many more. 

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