This is what I was hoping for when I started this Disney Canon project. It happened when I reviewed One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and it has happened again with Mulan; a movie that I remembered being just fine gained a whole new level of appreciation. Mulan is awesome, and I am kind of pissed off there aren’t enough people singing its praises. I know they aren’t, because how else did it take me so long to re-watch and be able to admire this movie’s greatness. Mulan now stands out as the by-far superior movie in the latter half of the Disney Renaissance, which is to say the best movie to come out after the ridiculous success of The Lion King, but before the studio started to really have difficulties selling their movies in the early part of the new millennium.
Although people don’t talk much about this, the movie is one of Disney’s most ambitious, when you consider it was based on a Chinese folk tale that was virtually unknown in the west. Knowing as much as I do (which is rather little) about the source material, this seems to me as a far more appropriate story for the Disney model than, say, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The premise of a woman dressing up as a man in order to find a way to honor her family while saving China from a Hun invasion in the process lends it self surprisingly well to the kind of “I Want” narrative that worked so well for the The Little Mermaid. Mulan’s internal struggle, like Ariel’s, is one of identity, and one that can be pretty perfectly expressed in a song, as she does in “Reflection”.
Film critic Tasha Robinson pointed out in her review of Frozen, that starting in the late eighties, every Disney movie seems to be a response to a criticism received by the studio. That is one fantastic thesis as far as theses about the Walt Disney Company goes, and one that is never more apparent than in the studio’s princesses movies, and Mulan in particular. Following on the footsteps of Belle, Mulan is the ultimate Disney response to the claim that their princesses are anti-feminist role models. Mulan’s whole quest comes out of the fact that she can’t behave in the expected feminine patterns that would allow her to gain a husband and bring honor to her family. There is no question the guys at Disney wanted to make a feminist movie. Not only does Mulan kick ass and becomes the very best soldier once she joins the army, but the movie wisely focuses above all in her personal journey and not so much in a romantic subplot.
The fact that it doesn’t focus on romance, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a love interest for our heroine. One of the criticisms against Mulan is that once she has saved the whole empire, her final success is that Captain Li Shang has fallen in love with her. I actually find this romance to be handled in a gloriously delicate way. There is no love song, and the characters never kiss, the relationship is as much about respect for one another than about physical beauty or any kind of superfluous charm, which I find to be very appropriate for a movie that tries to speak to nineties girrrl power. And, let me tell you, in that front, the movie delivers.
There are obviously things that aren’t great about Mulan. I can personally think of two of them really quickly. The first one is a legitimate concern and is that the villain is kind of dull. Shan Yu is menacing and creepily designed, but we spend very little time with him and we don’t know much about his personality and his motivations beyond he is ruthless and wants to conquer China. It’s not like the movie has time to spare, and while it does a very good job with Mulan’s storyline, I could have appreciated a little more time and effort devoted to fleshing out Shan Yu as a character. The second weakness is only one depending on how you see it, and its name is Eddie Murphy.
Murphy voices Mushu, a small dragon sent by Mulan’s ancestors to help her, and he sounds very much like Eddie Murphy. The producers were clearly going for their most Robin-Williams-in-Aladdin-like gambit, and it does feel like it’s striving to recapture the Williams’ lightning and putting it in Mulan’s bottle. The thing about Mushu is that beyond the whole repetition thing, is that even if you instantly recognize Murphy’s voice as not belonging to the world of the movie, he is pretty funny and does his best to the point where he kinda molds into the movie. The reasons for looking down on Mushu have much more to do with Murphy’s much more talked about job in voicing Donkey in the Shrek movies. Why the Shrek movies caught on as hard as they did, and why Murphy’s work there was praised beyond believe when he did a much more appropriate, and actually better, job in this movie I think I’ll never know.
Even with those flaws, there is a power to Mulan that you only find in the best Disney features. At this point it’s not necessary to say so, but the movie looks beautiful. It’s hard to remember at times that the quality of Disney movies is far superior to anything being done at this time. I just watched a little bit of Quest for Camelot (which came out the same year as Mulan, but was produced by Warner Bros. Animation) and it looked completely hideous in comparison. But not only is Mulan pretty, it also uses its visuals to create character payoffs and advance the plot. I think in particular of a character named Ling, whom we see practicing a martial arts move involving his head, which he ends up using to defend himself in the final battle. There is an attention to detail that simply elevates the quality of the product, and that is something that Disney always understands when it operates at its best.
Similarly to the visual payoffs, the story is also crafted with high detail. I can’t find a better work to describe it than “satisfying”. The character arc of Mulan is echoed by that of Shang in a way that enhances both their stories and makes the development of their relationship very easy to buy. They are both looking for a way to follow in their families footsteps and honor their ancestors, which I find a very nice way to handle an aspect of Chinese culture and making it relatable to western audiences while still respecting it. This is a very finely crafted film, from the story to the visuals and the music (which I haven’t talked about, but the score by Jerry Goldsmith and the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel are all great), and the result is a movie that works its way to earning its emotional climaxes. The final encounter between Mulan and her dad, for example, is beautiful. An even better example comes during the musical number “A Girl Worth Fighting For”, which is very much a show-stopping happy fantasy that is suddenly cut by the destruction left behind by the Hun army in the movie’s best gut-punching moment.
The big theme for Disney in the Renaissance period seems to be identity. Most of the protagonists in these movies have a yearning to look for the ways in which they can freely be what they are inside. Ariel’s longing for a live outside the ocean, the Beast’s romantic return to a kind hearted self, and Simba’s identity as the true king all echo the same idea. Mulan follows in those footsteps and connects with its audience, but also does something quite important in diminishing traditional and limiting gender roles. If you want to see Mulan as a desperate attempt on Disney’s part to finally create a feminist heroine, then you have to admit they did their job quite well. Mulan is a great movie that deserves to be seen by all children and rediscovered by adults.
Next Time: The Lion King was originally titled King of the Jungle, but Lions live in the Savannah, so you might as well apply that title to Disney’s next feature: Tarzan.