‘Mulan’ Turns 20: Ming-Na Wen Reflects on Animated Disney Classic (Exclusive)

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Tranquil as a forest, but a fire within, Mulan has remained one of the most unique entries in the '90s era of Disney animated movies. While based on a famous Chinese story that dates back to the 6th century, the 1998 animated film’s universal themes made it popular all over the world. After her aging father is summoned to join the military fight against a Hun invasion, Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) disguises herself as a man to take his place. In Disney’s adaptation, she ends up proving to her country, and herself, that inner strength can be powerful enough to save a nation.

“I just remember being so taken aback that Disney was able to take an all-Asian story and was brave enough 20 years ago to go, 'You know what? We want to make this story, because it's an incredible one and it's very inspiring about a young girl who really followed her heart and believed in herself,’” Wen recalls to ET’s Denny Directo at the 2018 Tony Awards about being involved with the film.

“My mother, you know, she would tell me stories about Mulan when I was growing up and it's like one of those stories that have been passed on down from generation to generation,” Wen told ET in 1998. By this time in her career, Wen had starred in The Joy Luck Club (as well as reading the audiobook, which helped solidify her casting for Mulan producers), the film adaptation of Street Fighter and appeared on ER’s first season before eventually returning as regular between 2000 and 2004. In 2013, Wen returned to the Disney fold as Agent May in Marvel’s Agents of Shield, which just aired its 100th episode. “And now that I'm so familiar with the story, I can understand why, because it's a story about a girl, a young girl, sacrificing her life for her parents.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to forget the movie’s celebrity cast also includes Eddie Murphy. It’s probably because his most famous voice-over role debuted just three years later in 2001’s Shrek. While he starred as waffle-enthusiast Donkey in four films and multiple shorts, Murphy also gave a great performance as Mushu, Mulan’s dragon guardian, that was very reminiscent of Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. The movie also displayed a prominent array of Asian actors, including B.D. Wong as Captain Li Shang and George Takei as one of Mulan’s ancestors.

“Aside from being an actor, I'm a member of that Asian community and I'm a member of those people who watch movies with a great deal of cynicism and skepticism, because over the decades, we've been either so poorly represented or not represented at all,” Wong told ET at the film’s premiere. (The actor was nominated for an Emmy in 2017 for his role as a transgender cyber-terrorist on Mr. Robot -- one of the few Asian performers to earn an acting nomination.) “I was nervous going into it, because I didn't know how it was going to turn out, but everything was so beautifully and relevantly and gorgeously done that I felt a great deal of pride for my small part in it.”

The soundtrack also boasted an Asian powerhouse: Broadway legend Lea Salonga, who provided the singing voice for Mulan as well as Jasmine in Aladdin. On the song, “Reflection,” Mulan expresses her hope of one day showing everyone an honest reflection of herself. The soundtrack’s other standout song, “Be True To Your Heart,” puts the movie’s central themes into the simplest of terms: despite what anyone says, your dreams can be achieved by being yourself. The scene that kicks off Mulan’s journey toward this realization later became a significant moment for Wen.

“For me, I actually have two favorite scenes. One is when she cuts her hair and she decides to make this huge sacrifice for her father,” said Wen. The other is toward the movie’s end when Mulan returns home and discovers her father doesn’t feel betrayed by her actions, but is rather instilled with pride by the courage she displayed. Wen called the moment a “personal tribute” to her father who passed away two years before the movie premiered. “Because of what I experienced with that, it really helped me to understand Mulan's motivation for doing what she did. Her love for her father was that strong that she was willing to risk her own life to save his.”

Since the film premiered in 1998, it's maintained a prominent space in the Disney animated films hall of fame. The last couple years has also seen a Mulan resurgence in pop culture. Be it Dancing With the Stars, Once Upon A Time, or Rick's elusive Saucenz Sauce, McDonald's limited-time condiment. It’s not only withstood the test of time, but the movie is now the foundation for a live-action adaptation directed by Niki Caro and starring Jet Li and Liu Yifei in the lead role to be released by Disney in 2020.

"I'm very excited that they want to do a live-action because they've done so amazingly with all of the movies -- from Maleficent, to Beauty and the Beast, to Cinderella," Wen told ET in 2017. "I'm really looking forward to the live-action."

When asked at the Tony Awards about the chances of appearing in the live-action film, Wen remained mum. “I'm not allowed to say,” she says. “But fingers crossed.”


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