"Fa" is the Cantonese pronunciation of Mulan's family name. "Hua" is the correct Mandarin pronunciation, and means "flower." "Hua Ping" (Mulan's fake name) means "flower vase" or just "vase." In China, an effeminate man is often called a "flower vase" or "flowerpot."
The film was originally planned as an animated short entitled "China Doll," about an oppressed and miserable Chinese girl who is whisked away by a British Prince Charming to happiness in the West. Then Disney consultant and children's book writer Robert D. San Souci suggested making a movie of the Chinese poem, "The Song of Fa Mu Lan," so the two projects were combined.
In one version of the legend, Mulan had a younger brother who was to be enlisted in the military, but instead, Mulan goes in his place. In the film, Mulan has a dog named "Little Brother," as a nod to this.
According to Robert D. San Souci, who retold and researched the original story, Disney did not like the idea of putting in a dragon as a companion for Mulan; they feared it would be too big and menacing. San Souci explained to them that in Chinese lore, dragons can be any size, so a small dragon was approved. Thus, Mushu was born. This change is acknowledged when Mulan calls him "tiny" and Mushu replies, "Of course! I'm travel size for your convenience! If I was my REAL size, your cow (Khan) here would die of fright!"
The film is credited with launching the career of Christina Aguilera, whose first song to be released in the U.S. was the film's song "Reflection." The song went down so well that it landed her a recording contract with RCA Records.
Tony/Olivier Award-Winning actress Lea Salonga originally auditioned for Mulan's voice, but it was deemed "not deep enough" for when Mulan is impersonating a male soldier. Although Ming-Na Wen plays Mulan, Salonga was retained for Mulan's singing voice.
Disney animators were very keen to gain the support of the Chinese government, hoping that it might help smooth over relations following the upset that had been caused by the Disney-funded release of Kundun (1997).
In the scene where Mushu awakens the ancestors, one set of grandparents worry that Mulan's quest will ensure her family loses their farm. This couple appears to be the couple on the farm in Grant Wood's famous painting "American Gothic." An uncredited Barry Cook, one of the film's directors, provides the man's voice.
Computer animators used the latest technology to add detail and mimic camera techniques that were previously unavailable in animation, like crowd scenes of up to 30,000 people. They used a computer program called "Atilla" to make the sequence featuring 2,000 Huns on horseback.
Development first began in 1994 with Disney sending a select group of artistic supervisors to China for a three-week acclimatization and inspiration course. The movie's artistic supervisors spent this time sketching, photographing, and soaking up the culture.
Co-director Barry Cook cited David Lean as one of his influences. This is particularly evident given the epic sweep of the Hun mountainside advance of 2,000 soldiers on the Imperial troops, and the later crowd sequence of 30,000 in the Imperial City.
After the departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994, the story was infused with a lighter touch and handed over to the fairly new Florida feature unit. Up until that point, they had been mainly responsible for the Roger Rabbit shorts.
Harvey Fierstein was reluctant to voice a Chinese character, due to strong feelings about giving more opportunities to Asian actors. When he was assured that many true Asians were being cast as main characters, he agreed to play Yao.
Real-life martial artist Mimi Chan and George Kee did the martial arts fights and choreography for the characters Mulan and Shang. Chan was discovered by Mark Henn while performing for the animation team in Orlando. He then used her as his model for Mulan.
Although the plot of the film centers on a woman masquerading as a man, most of the male cast had played or dressed as women at points in their careers: BD Wong (Shang) in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly (1993), Harvey Fierstein (Yao) in the Broadway musical "Hairspray," and Eddie Murphy (Mushu) in several of his own films. Also, Soon Tek-Oh (Fa Zhou) and Gedde Wattanabe (Ling) appeared in a 1976 musical called "Pacific Overtures," in which both played women's parts.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the original Chinese legend upon which this film was based, Mulan succeeds in her deception and leaves the battlefield with great honors. Months later, Mulan's fellow soldiers come in search of their "brother-"in-arms, and are shocked to discover that she is a woman.
In one of the original versions of the film, Mulan was engaged to Li Shang and matching Yin-Yang necklaces were bestowed upon them. Although that part was removed, the Yin-Yang necklaces survive in the sequel (Mulan 2 (2004)).
Harvey Fierstein, who voices Yao, is also famous for drag queen performances, including the role of Edna Turnblad in the Broadway version of the film Hairspray (1988). He translates this to animation when they invade the palace to defeat the Huns in the film's third act.
The English translation of the Chinese characters on the rocket Mushu has strapped to his back during the climax is "The Big Bamboo," a place in Kissimmee, Florida where the Mulan (1998) crew liked to hang out.
Mulan's horse, Khan, is referred to by name only twice in the entire film. The first time is when Mushu asks him for a ride (which he promptly refuses). The second time is when Mulan decides to return home after saving the Emperor.