Premiered in: Mulan (1998)
Voiced By: Miguel Ferrer
Shan Yu is distinct amongst Disney Villains in two ways. First, he is both a great villain and an equally great hero insomuch that in the eyes of China and its people, he is a monster to be feared and respected but not really so to his own. He rides with his men to every battle, at the forefront no less, and he openly approves of the Emperor of China not only being made aware of his presence but to send forth the strongest armies to challenge him and his men. He is, I feel, akin to the likes of Vlad the Impaler whom, to his enemies, was indeed a monster but to his own people, he was… not a saint but certainly not a monster to them.
To be fair though, that does not in any way excuse any of Shan Yu’s actions that he underwent in the name of conquest, especially when he outright admits that the entire affair was started by the construction of the Great Wall. Having felt challenged by this supposedly impenetrable wall, Shan Yu felt that he should not only scale it but to conquer the country he felt was cowering behind it. So he amassed an army the likes of which I’ve never seen before, or since, in any Disney animated film. Scar’s hyenas were a small band to the vast number of troops under Shan Yu’s commands as he road unencumbered through the land, ravaging everything in his wake, civilians and soldiers alike.
Make no mistake, Shan Yu is one of the most murderous of the Disney Villains, going so far as to question the necessity of having two messengers before executing one via an arrow to the back. There was also the village of civilians that he had razed to the ground for their harboring the Imperial Vanguard of China, troops he had not only overrun, but quite likely slaughtered given the sheer number of men under his command. A number that he ended up losing to the likes of Mulan and her making use of the terrain that Shan Yu had tried to take advantage of. Though he did have the high ground, Mulan had the higher wits by making use of the snowcapped mountaintop and causing an avalanche that wiped out all but the most elite of Shan Yu’s men and Shan Yu himself.
Finding this a minor inconvenience than anything, Shan Yu proceeded to the Imperial City where he proceeds to capture the Emperor during the victory celebration. It is here that something interesting occurs in Shan Yu’s character though. Rather than hold the man hostage for safe passage back to his lands or outright killing him in front of his people, Shan Yu demanded that the Emperor bow to him. Now my understanding of Chinese customs is severely limited but it is to my understanding that to bow to someone is to equate one as being that person’s lesser. That is to say, that while one is showing respect they are also acknowledging the fact that they are not the one in power. What better message could Shan Yu make to China than having its Emperor not only bow to him but to do so in the very heart of his country, his own palace?
Of course, Shan Yu’s plans came tumbling down with the return of Mulan and instantly recognizing her as the very soldier who ruined what several hundred men could not, Shan Yu pursued her himself. He knew that Mulan, woman or not, was the greatest threat to his plans and he was right. Just as before, Mulan might have been the physically weaker of the two and far less trained, despite an awesome musical montage to contradict this, she possessed a greater intelligence than Shan Yu and used that to her advantage, which leads us to the second distinction of this particular Disney Villain.
While it cannot be argued that it was Mulan’s plan that lead to Shan Yu’s death it was in no small thanks to her equally pint-sized guardian that the killing blow was met. You read correctly ladies and gentlemen, Shan Yu, a Disney Villain unlike any other that has come before or since, a man who commanded an army of thousands and who slaughtered just as many… was done in by a sidekick. To be fair, great and powerful though he might be, it was with a bit of draconic breath and one heck of an intimidation tactic that Mushu was able to make use of the palace’s largest firework rocket and use it to send Shan Yu into an infernal demise.
Not bad for a lizard-sized dragon eh?