I'm a sucker for the big kiss when the couple finally gets together at the end of Disney movies. However, when Mulan came out in 1998, it made me realize that you don't always need a kiss to have a relationship since Mulan and Shang are the best Disney couple, even without locking lips. What makes Mulan and Shang one of the greats, especially when you consider that Disney movies are geared toward children, is the way they show how you can slowly get to know someone and come to admire and respect them before jumping into romance. And while part of me always longs for a little more to happen between these two characters when I watch the end of Mulan , that is part of the allure of Mulan and Shang.
When you start overthinking how Shang didn't know Mulan's true identity or gender for most of the movie, you will obviously find some flaws in their relationship — but really, the same can be said for when you start analyzing any Disney couple. And when I talk about Mulan and Shang, I'm exclusively talking about the original Mulan — none of this Mulan II shenanigans since I tend to ignore any direct-to-video Disney sequels. If you weren't worthy enough to make it into theaters, you aren't worthy enough for me to watch. Plus! A Mushu not voiced by Eddie Murphy is no Mushu at all. I've never seen Mulan II, but since it starts with Mulan and Shang getting engaged, it pretty much ruins everything that was so wonderful about their relationship from the first film, so it's best just to ignore it.
So, with strictly looking at the original Mulan, why are Fa Mulan and Li Shang the best Disney couple? Well, let's start with the fact that Mulan is one of the most empowering female Disney animated characters ever and so anyone she likes is pretty much golden in my eyes. Yes, I do realize that thought is not very empowered of me, but what I mean is that Mulan is an endearing character in her own right, who gets established without her plot depending on the guy she'll end up, and that makes you root for her and whatever will bring her happiness.
After you see her miserably fail at meeting with the matchmaker, you can not only relate to her gawkiness, but to her vulnerability — all while sharing her viewpoint that you shouldn't have to get married to bring honor onto your family. Of course, the crux of the movie is that she bucks tradition and saves her father by pretending to be a man to join the war. Even though she's at a disadvantage at training camp and Shang is hard on her, she overcomes the obstacles and proves herself to be a worthy soldier. Later, she becomes the best strategist of the Chinese army since she uses her intelligence and cunning to figure out how to defeat the Huns. [Insert manly grunt here.]
When it comes to Shang, I think it's because he is voiced by B.D. Wong and Donny Osmond that makes him so adorably sweet even when he is being — or trying to be — tough. Although Shang is from a military family, he wants to win his father's approval, just like Mulan, and in doing so, gets to sing the best song of the entire movie (sorry, not sorry, "Reflection"). While he appears tough to the men (and woman) that he is training, you get to see that he's actually vulnerable too when behind closed tent flaps.
I would be remiss if I also didn't acknowledge Shang's high level of attractiveness. While I really don't want to objectify an animated character, Disney already did that for me by making Shang shirtless half the time. And hey, for once it's nice that the Disney princess (still trying to figure out how Mulan landed that coveted "Disney Princess" title without any royal ties) has a relatively healthy body shape that isn't being flaunted around in a seashell bra or the like. Plus, wasn't it kind of awesome that the movie gives a little nod to Mulan's sexual attraction to Shang?
Eventually (and by eventually, I mean over the course of a song since after all, Mulan is a Disney movie), Mulan does earn Shang's respect with her unrelenting perseverance and their friendship begins to form. Yet, the low point for their relationship is when Shang kicks her out of the army and abandons her upon the reveal that she's female. When you consider it was the law for him to kill her, he's doing her a solid, but if you were 'shipping this couple from the moment Shang appeared on screen, it was disappointing.
However, when they do reunite and Mulan saves the day, Shang not only supports her, but completely accepts Mulan in this dominant position. Many real-life men would struggle with being upstaged by a woman, but that's not an issue for Shang. And this is what makes their relationship so stellar — he not only trusts Mulan, he relies on her since he knows what a capable warrior she is, regardless of her gender. And while he has been sexually confused for perhaps the entirety of his screen time since he obviously was attracted to Mulan on some level — even before it was revealed she was a woman — he doesn't resent her for that and embraces his interest (with some prompting by the Emperor) by tentatively showing up at her house.
Mulan marrying Shang — like so many other Disney princesses do with their princes at the end of their films — wouldn't have been true to her character at all. So rather than getting married, Mulan simply asks him to stay for dinner. (Grandmother Fa is a little more forward in her sentiments toward Shang with her memorable quip, "Would you like to stay forever?") While these two aren't afraid to butt heads (gimme that banter!), Shang — yet again — is cool with Mulan being the one in power since she essentially asked him on a date, in front of her father no less. And that's where their love story concludes in the film — with just a glimmer of promise of a date and the chance for these two crazy kids to get to know each other off of the battle field.
While some fans of Mulan would have preferred there to be no love story at all, I think Disney provided a relationship where a crush can blossom (fully embracing Mulan's dad's blossom talk here) without having the pressure of it ending in a marriage, or even a kiss. Since I've already confessed how much I adore a swoon-worthy kiss at the end, I won't lie and say that Shang and Mulan are more romantic than a Disney relationship like Belle and the Beast, but there's something refreshingly simple about their coupling that is so rare in Disney films to this day. With so many Disney movies having the main message be about who the princess ends up with, Mulan and Shang showed you can have a romance without it being the only thing that matters in your life. And that's a lesson worth remembering for dynasties.
Images: Disney; Giphy (4); Caitlin Gallagher/Bustle