Disney Mulan, released in 1998, is an interesting example in animation in more ways than one. If you haven’t seen it, the film is well worth your time and you can read a professional review by Roger Ebert here. While I disagree with the author about the music (“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For” are catchy and well reflect the ideas in the film), I do support the idea that the film was a stepping stone in development of Disney Animation and I believe that one of the most important and least discussed areas that Mulan pioneers is cultural diversity in animation films.
To begin with, Mulan continues cultural exploration that was begun by films like Aladdin. The Disney studios turned their attention from solely Western fairy tales to legends from other cultures, therefore extending not only the scope of material available to base films on, but also expanding the medium as a whole, making it more inclusive and global. While Aladdin is the first Disney animation feature film to be based in non-Western culture, its achievements in terms of cultural involvement are otherwise rather feeble. The design and visuals are definitely inspired by Middle East buildings and art, but overall the film seems more of a comical reflection of stereotypes of Middle East that exist in Western countries.
In contrast, Mulan tackles the issue of cultural differences more seriously, involving not only the visuals that actually correspond to historic art and architecture, but also including the ideas of Chinese culture to very core of the story. For example, the arranged marriages, obedience to the parents and the importance of family history to one’s faith are perceived very differently in today’s Western countries, but film creators made a conscious effort to approach these questions from the point of view of a person who is native to the culture. Refraining from labeling everything that does not match the Western tradition as “wrong”, Mulan moves closer to really allowing viewers to experience a glimpse to a completely different culture through the film creator’s eyes.
And while obviously it is still a popular culture take on the story and is far from completely accurately reflecting the culture (which might not be possible to achieve perfectly, especially in historic settings), the effort to understand and accept the cultural differences made Mulan a more engaging and effective animation film.