Mulan

Mulan (1998)

Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft

Synopsis

When an army of Huns breaks through the Great Wall and invades Imperial China, the Emperor commands that every family must volunteer one man to join the army.  Since he has no sons, the elderly Fa Zhou, an army veteran now in ill health, prepares to join himself.  His daughter Mulan, knowing that doing so would mean his death, steals his armor and sword and disguises herself as a man to take his place.

Mulan’s grandmother prays at the family’s shrine for their ancestors to keep her safe.  In response, they decide to send a dragon spirit to retrieve her.  Mushu, a smaller dragon who’d been demoted for bad behavior, accidentally destroys the dragon statue that he’d been sent to wake up for this task.  Instead of reporting this, Mushu takes its place, theorizing that he’d be able to earn his former rank back if he makes Mulan a war hero instead of bringing her home.

Now with the other recruits, Mulan stumbles through her training with dubious help from Mushu, all while concealing her true identity from her fellow trainees and her commanding officer, Li Shang, who she begins to fall for.  In order to expedite the process, Mushu fakes an urgent summons from the main army.  However, when the recruits arrive they find that the army has been destroyed by the Huns, and they come under attack themselves.  Mulan saves everyone by using a rocket to cause an avalanche.  The Huns are seemingly defeated, but Mulan’s deception is discovered when she’s being treated for her injuries.  Instead of executing her, as the law demands, Shang spares her life for saving his, but sends her home in disgrace.

As she makes her way home, Mulan discovers that some of the Huns survived and are infiltrating the Imperial City, where a celebration is taking place to honor Li Shang and the recruits for their “victory.”  Mulan attempts to warn Shang, but the Huns are able to take the Emperor captive.  Mulan and the recruits sneak into the palace (with the men disguised as women), and Mulan takes out the Hun leader Shan Yu with some help from Mushu and a giant firework.  The Emperor offers her a place on his council, but Mulan turns him down and returns home instead.  Shang follows her, and has dinner with her family as the ancestors begrudgingly thank Mushu and celebrate Mulan’s success.

Production Notes

Disney’s animation facilities at the then-MGM Studios theme park near Disney World had originally been intended to produce short cartoons for TV and before the main feature in theaters.  However, due to production rushes or other difficulties it kept getting conscripted to work on Disney’s main movies throughout the Renaissance.  By the mid-90s, the executives decided that it was finally time for them to get their own movie to work on independently of the other animators.

Disney had recently optioned the rights to several books by children’s author Robert San Souci, whose work was focused on retellings of stories and legends from around the world.  When asked if he had anything else that he thought would make a good movie, he gave them the manuscript for a book based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan.  The Florida team decided that it would be the perfect story for their first independent film. 

However, they had a bit of trouble breaking down the story and turning it into a movie.  It was originally being developed as a romantic comedy in the vein of Tootsie, with Mulan already betrothed to Shang.  But the heads of the storyboarding unit, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (who’d later go on to create Lilo & Stitch and the How to Train Your Dragon films) urged the producers to stay closer to the original legend. 

As such, there originally wasn’t any sort of the typical Disney animal companion, since there wasn’t one in the story.  It was Roy Disney himself who suggested the addition of Mushu, and story artist Joe Grant who came up with the cricket Cri-Kee.  Pretty much everyone else on project other than Joe Grant hated Cri-Kee, but Grant got Michael Eisner on his side, who forced the issue.  Still, everyone was pretty much of the attitude “to hell with the cricket”, and Grant had to keep slipping sketches of Cri-Kee under the directors’ doors to get them to remember.

Most of the movie was deliberately cast with East Asian voice talent.  However, they wanted another big-name actor to play Mushu, in the vein of Robin Williams’s stunt casting as the Genie.  Eddie Murphy wasn’t their first choice (they’d actually wanted Joe Pesci), but he eventually agreed on the provision that he could record his dialogue at home in his own studio and send it in.

Having been stung by the relatively poor box office returns of Hunchback and Hercules, Disney scaled back its advertising from the gigantic media blitzes of the previous movies.  McDonald’s didn’t even have Happy Meal toys for it until two days before the release.  While Mulan didn’t make as much at the box office as the early Renaissance films had, it did better than both of the previous films, and got the best reviews for a Disney movie since The Lion King.

Review

It’s generally held that the front half of the Disney Renaissance films, from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King, are noticeably stronger than the back half.  I tend to agree with this, as none of the movies from the late 90s ever really managed to break into the pop culture landscape in the way that the earlier ones did.  Of those five movies, Mulan is the only one that really left any lasting mark, which is appropriate, as I think it’s my favorite of the bunch.

I think in part that’s because this is the closest that Disney has come so far in my viewings to an actual action film.  Sure, we had the darker-than-usual fantasy of The Black Cauldron and the superheroics of Hercules, but this is the first of Disney’s movies to actually go to war.  Like in the latter film, there is also a training montage set to music, where the hero learns to fight.  But while Hercules never really seemed to be in true danger, Mulan here is clearly in over her head, and the threat of imminent combat looms over everything.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s wise-cracking, stunt-casted sidekick, Mushu, is constantly trying to get her closer to the violence.  He spends the entire movie self-servingly manipulating her into ever increasing danger, all in an attempt to get back into the good graces of her ancestors.  I’ve seen more than one essay written about Mushu is the true villain of the movie, and I think that there’s quite a bit of merit in that argument.  He only succeeds because Mulan is intelligent and resourceful, and is repeatedly able to think her way out of the problems that he keeps getting her into.

Behold, the chiefest and greatest of calamities!

Like Robin Williams six years earlier, Eddie Murphy was one of the most successful comedians in Hollywood at the time, and he brought his motor-mouth standup routine to the role.  While not quite as off-the-wall as Williams’s performance, his Mushu is still almost charming enough to make you ignore all of the terrible mistakes he makes over the course of the movie.  Murphy aside, a good portion of the rest of the cast is made up of East Asian actors.  Ming-Na Wen is great as Mulan, as is BD Wong as Shang.  I’m glad for this, as me complaining about white-washing/yellowface seems to have been a regular part of my nostalgia reviews for a while.

One place where I definitely do have to dock Mulan a bit is in the villain department.  Leaving aside the idea of Mushu as villain, the movie’s ostensible bad guy, Shan Yu, is barely in the picture at all.  We never really get a sense of his motivations, other than “invade China.”  He’s just a big scary guy, more of a force of nature than a real character.  This is accentuated by the animator’s decision to give him animalistic eyes, without any visible whites.  He’s probably the weakest Disney villain since the start of the Renaissance.

Sure, he looks scary. But he doesn’t really DO anything

Like all of the Disney movies since Beauty and the Beast, Mulan is a musical.  However, almost all of the songs are frontloaded, with three of the four songs coming in the first half.  Once the recruits arrive in the mountains, the movie morphs into almost a straight-up action film, forgetting about the songs entirely.  That transition is done really well, however.  The entire journey is spent with the recruits singing “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” a rather silly song about their romantic lives (or lack thereof).  The song cuts off mid-line, however, as they round a bend and see the devastated village and battleground.  It’s a “shit just got real” moment for both the recruits and Mushu, who’d faked their orders to go out here and didn’t know anything was actually going on.

Another unintended consequence of the movie’s soundtrack is the debut of a soon-to-be global superstar.  Many of the previous Renaissance films had released a version of one of their songs re-recorded by a pop star for radio play (i.e. the Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle version of “A Whole New World,” which was a #1 hit).  For this movie, they selected a brand new teenage singer who’d never actually released any music commercially in America, and who was mostly known at the time for starring in The Mickey Mouse Club on the Disney Channel for a couple of years.  That singer: Christina Aguilera.  Her version of “Reflection” was her first American single, and it got her a recording contract for the first time.

Verdict

As I said at the top, this is probably my favorite movie from the latter half of the Renaissance.  While I was definitely impressed by how much Hunchback improved on a rewatch as an adult, Mulan manages to just be more fun overall.  It’s not perfect – there’s a definite villain problem, and some of the side characters are weak – but I still really like it anyway.

Animation: B+ (The animation never reaches the heights of the earlier Renaissance, but I definitely think that the Asian-inspired designs work a lot better than the caricatures of Hercules)

Main Characters: A (Mulan is a badass)

Supporting Characters: B+ (Mushu is endearingly annoying, as he’s supposed to be, but all of the other recruits feel somewhat underdeveloped)

Villains: C+ (Shan Yu and the other invaders are really underwhelming)

Songs: B+ (“Reflection” is a great torch song, and I can still hum most of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”)

Overall: B+

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