It’s easy enough to track when I started growing up by watching the drop-off in Disney movies that I’ve seen. Like most American kids who grew up in the 1980s, Disney’s animated features were common video rentals in my family. As I became a teenager, I stopped caring about them for a time, until as an adult I began to appreciate the animated medium again — as an artform and storytelling medium rather than just “cartoons are for kids”. The Disney films from the late 1990s and early 2000s are mostly films I’ve overlooked, aside from obvious standouts such as Fantasia 2000. Sometimes this is because an individual film just didn’t sound appealing, but mostly it was a matter of not looking. One of my ongoing goals is to correct this and fill in my Disney gaps; when I came across a sealed copy of Mulan (1998, directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook) at a garage sale for cheap, I figured it was a good idea to pick it up to watch and review later.
Mulan is immediately notable among Disney’s “folk and fairy tale” features for its different setting. Most of the films — from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Frozen — are based on European folklore. Mulan is one of the small number of exceptions, based on a story adapted from an old Chinese poem. This cultural shift carries with it a minor art shift; there’s a slightly more angular nature to the way the characters are drawn, as if the animators were attempting to evoke a sense of Chinese calligraphy into their design.
Though not quite as literally as Mulan with her cheat sheet.
Fa Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) is a young woman growing up in ancient China whose largest worry is making a good impression on the matchmaker who is to find her a husband. These fears and plans soon become derailed, however, when war threatens the nation. A vicious warrior chief, Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) has set his sights on the land and is coming with a vast horde of Huns to conquer it. (A note for those who, like me, have a better grasp of European history than Asian, and are confused: these Huns are the Xiongnu of northeast Asia, and are unrelated to Attila’s bunch of eastern Europeans.) The Emperor, feeling that China will be best defended if everyone in the land is invested in its defense, issues a decree: every family is to send one man to join the army. Mulan is an only child, and her father has a bad leg from an earlier stint in battle. Rather than see him go, Mulan breaks both custom and law to disguise herself as a man and heads off to war.
It’s a story of people who aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Accompanying Mulan on her journey is her guardian spirit Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s brash persona comes through loud and clear in Mushu, with some anachronisms a la Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. The character is a little too dominant for this film, but only a little; he is still mostly entertaining. It’s easy to see how the role would lead to Murphy’s portrayal of Donkey in the Shrek franchise, though, as Mushu is essentially an early fire-breathing Donkey. The little dragon, like Mulan, is going against his orders. Instructed to bring her back, he instead decides to support her endeavor so that when they return he’ll be hailed as a great hero among the spirits of Mulan’s ancestors.
Hard to blame him for wanting a little dignity.
As with most Disney features, there are a few musical numbers. The most notable of these are a couple songs during Mulan’s stay in the army, both of which have a touch of dramatic irony to them. The irony is reasonably obvious with commander Li Shang’s (BD Wong) “Make a Man Out of You”, but only a little less with “A Girl Worth Fighting For”. With Mulan’s covert presence, there’s a clear message that a girl worth fighting for is also a girl worth fighting alongside. The theme of the movie, which is essentially that valuable contributions can come from anybody determined to make them, is a refreshing change of pace from the typical kids’ movie message of “Be Yourself” (which with this film is a bit more debatable; certainly Mulan’s spirit is more geared to fighting than to tea ceremonies, but she has to do it in disguise.)
The movie has a lot of fun and laughs along the way, both from Mushu and from Mulan’s interactions with the other recruits, but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that this is a movie that takes place during a war. Shan Yu is not a friendly enemy, and atrocities — or at least their aftermath — are shown. This seriousness gives the film a little more weight than it otherwise might have, and makes the happier parts that much more enjoyable for not being mere fluff. It also succeeds on the action scenes, which although brief are exciting to watch.
The film is definitely a worthy entry into the Disney canon.
I bought the two-pack, and I have an aversion to owning a movie and not watching it. That is the only reason why I would find myself watching one of Disney’s direct-to-video sequels, and while I resolved to keep an open mind regarding Mulan II, I didn’t have high hopes for this 2004 film. My misgivings were mostly borne out.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. It’s certainly put together competently, and although it was under a different director team — Darrell Rooney and Lynne Southerland — the animation style is fairly close to the original. It’s not 100%, but considering the differences between a theatrical budget and a DTV budget, it’s as good as can be expected. And most of the principal voice actors return, including those of main characters Fa Mulan and Li Shang, and key side characters. Gedde Watanabe, Harvey Fierstein, and Jerry Tondo reprise their roles as Mulan’s army buddies, Pat Morita returns as the Emperor, and George Takei returns as the spirit of Mulan’s First Ancestor. The one character who is given a new voice actor is Mushu; Murphy is replaced here by Mark Moseley. It’s the same character and style of performance, and it’s not radically changed, but anybody familiar with Eddie Murphy is going to be able to tell the difference. Still, it’s likely to fool any young girls (who typically aren’t Murphy aficionados nor students of voice acting), and young girls are definitely the target audience for this sequel.
In Mulan II, China is once again threatened by outside invaders: this time the Mongols. Rather than fight them directly, however, the Emperor wishes to form an alliance with the Qigong Empire to discourage the Mongol attack. To accomplish this, he is sending his three daughters (Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, and Lauren Tom) to marry the sons of the Qigong Emperor. Escorting the princesses on this mission are the newly-engaged Fa Mulan and Li Shang, along with Mulan’s three army buddies. Three princesses, three army buddies, I’m sure the adults in the audience can do the math here. Further complicating matters is Mushu, who comes along as a covert saboteur. He’s learned that if Shang and Mulan marry, Mulan will instead be responsibility of spirits of Shang’s temple — leaving Mushu out of a job. So he sets himself to sowing discord between the happy couple.
Which is pretty much where the whole thing hits the skids for me. The first film was about proving that a person could be more than their station in life, about great accomplishments coming from unexpected corners, and overcoming difficulties through ingenuity. The sequel is about pre-marital jitters and love-matches versus arranged marriages. While they try to tie it in with the first one’s themes through the question of “duty to one’s heart”, it meshes with the original Mulan about as well as a hypothetical Robin Hood sequel about housekeeping would work for that film. There’s a touch of depth in the conflict between Shang and Mulan about duty and personal desires, but as anyone can tell Shang’s going to lose that argument hard, it doesn’t amount to much.
Throw in some hackneyed jokes and plot developments that even a third-grader could see from a mile off, and it’s just not a deserving follow-up.