Mulan and its predecessor, Pocahontas, share a number of striking similarities. Traditional Disney Animated features mostly focus on either famous European folklore and fairytale myths, or novels written in either Western Europe or North America. There are a couple exceptions, like Saludos Amigos and The Three Cabelleros, but that’s the general source of their storytelling.
Pocahontas and Mulan instead are heavily based on completely other cultures. Pocahontas is about Native Americans, yet the creators didn’t ask the real, still existing tribes to help them out with the movie’s accuracy. Mulan is adapted from a Chinese balled called Hua Mulan. It’s generally treated as a legend, but it’s based on folklore and there may be some elements of truth in the story. Nobody knows for sure.
In 1989, Disney opened a new studio in Florida, MGM, which resides in the middle of the Disney Studios theme park in Walt Disney World. For a while they assisted in other productions like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. After both of those movies became massive successes, Disney allowed the studio to lead its own project, still under the main Disney Animation Studios label. Around the same time, they showed interest in producing an Asian-themed legend. After sending a team of animators to China to draw inspiration from their landmarks and classic architecture, they decided to adapt the legend of Mulan and began production in 1994.
Mulan would release as Disney’s 36th animated feature in 1998, earning just over $304 million on a $90 million budget. Most critics gave it a positive review, and unlike Pocahontas, most people tend to enjoy the movie. It’s not beloved like some of the classics, but it’s generally liked. People praised as one of Disney’s earliest feminist movies. People praised the animation. Of the later Disney Renaissance movies, it’s probably the one people remember the most fondly.
From what I can tell, reception in China was a bit more mixed. At the time only 10 Hollywood movies were allowed to release in China (they still heavily limit foreign releases there). From what I can tell, part of their complaint was that they didn’t make it themselves, but they also complained that Mulan presented an Americanized view of China more than it did actual Chinese culture. That said, it’s enjoyed by the Chinese a lot more than Pocahontas is enjoyed by Native Americans, and they didn’t see it as offensive so much as changing some details about the legend and culture without being intentionally disrespectful. I’ve read that the reception in China has improved since, but I can’t find any good sources either way.
Mulan is also scheduled to have a live action remake to be released in 2018, a few months after the animated movie’s 20th anniversary. I wonder if the live action Mulan will be more faithful to the original story. I hope so, because after briefly studying the original legend, it looks kind of awesome.
I saw this movie about a year after it came out, and despite how I was trying to grow up too fast at the time, I enjoyed it. I didn’t love it, hence why I haven’t seen it again until now, but I enjoyed it. My thoughts on the movie after seeing it again are pretty much the same. There’s a great mix of drama and fun, with fantastic visuals, but it’s not without flaws.
The movie centers on Mulan, a young Chinese woman who doesn’t feel like she knows herself. She’s a bit clumsy and socially awkward, which makes it hard for her to fit into society. She’s also more outspoken than what her society expects of women, which sometimes gets her in trouble. When the Emperor sends out a royal decree commanding a man from every family to join the Chinese army to fight off the Huns, she dresses up as a man and takes her elderly father’s place.
There are significant differences between the movie and the original legend. In the legend, Mulan fights in the army for 12 years for the Northern Wei Dynasty between 386 and 536 AD. She’s portrayed as beautiful, yet very strong and very skilled with a sword and Kung-Fu. As far as I can tell, everyone knows she’s a woman from the start, but they allow her to fight anyway because of her prowess on the battlefield. She earns a lot of respect and merit, yet refuses any rewards and retires to her hometown.
The earliest known text of the poem is dated to the 11th century and it’s estimated that it was originally written in the 6th century. As far as I can tell, the poem doesn’t necessarily mention the Huns – it just mentions invaders. In fact, the Huns are more known to invade Europe than they are for invading China, and it was the Xiongnu who invaded China. Then again, nobody really knows who the Huns actually were or where they came from.
In the movie, Mulan only fights in one battle and in a later small scale invasion of Forbidden City. She needs to hide that she’s a woman, for the punishment for a woman pretending to be a man to join the army is death. She accepts a few rewards after she saves the emperor. But that’s enough about the legend that I only looked up for about 10 minutes. From now on, I’m only going to talk about the movie.
Mulan is a great lead character. She starts off all awkward, and this awkwardness is multiplied when she tries to be one of the guys. This leads to the movie’s funniest bits, whether it’s talking about “manly urges” of beating people up or when she tries to take a private bath, but then a bunch of her fellow soldiers jump into the water, forcing her to sneak out. She starts at the bottom of her class because of her clumsiness, yet somehow ends up being the strongest and smartest of her military training group.
She even outfights and outruns her commanding officer by the end of the training montage. In that sense, the movie ignores the inherent physical disadvantages women have. Their bone structures aren’t as strong and they don’t have as much testosterone, which assists in muscle growth. Then again this is one of many Disney movies that employs at least a touch of cartoon physics, so I’ll let that slide.
There are also some good supporting characters. Captain Li Shang is trying to live up to his general father’s name, and he starts off very frustrated by how his trainees are struggling to learn anything. He doesn’t know how to feel about Mulan (masquerading as Ping) at first, but he learns to appreciate her wit and skill. There is of course a moment when everyone finds out she’s a girl, but instead of executing her as the law commands, he spares her life as thanks for saving his earlier on. I won’t spoil the rest, but he goes through a secondary arc at the end of the movie.
Mulan’s father is determined to fight as the emperor commands, despite his advanced age and bad back. Yet at the same time, when Mulan takes his place, he’s much more concerned for her safety than he is angry or worried about his family’s reputation, and he’s nothing but proud when he learns what she accomplished.
That said, the worst character in this movie is Mushu, the guardian dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. Disney clearly went for a comedic role in the veins of Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin, but here, Mushu is more annoying than anything else. He’s a failure of a guardian who also sets out to prove himself, but if anything he causes everyone trouble. A lot of his jokes fall flat, with only a few that are mildly funny. There’s one moment where he accidentally exposes Mulan’s group’s position to the Huns, almost getting everyone killed by an overwhelming force. The only time he contributes positively to the story is at the climax, directly involving himself in the villain’s awesomely over the top death.
When I watched Aladdin last week, I learned that Eddie Murphy may be voicing the genie in the live action Aladdin remake. After seeing this movie, that worries me. I’m not saying that Eddie Murphy can’t be funny. A lot of people like him in Shrek, including me, but that’s partly because he knows when to calm down and act dramatic. The writing behind Mushu just isn’t that great, and Eddie Murphy’s overly enthusiastic performance sometimes makes it worse.
The villain isn’t all that compelling either. He’s basically just a barbaric warrior with a deep voice. He does look intimidating though, and he is a serious threat. I’d choose him over the loan shark in Oliver and Company any day.
The visuals in this movie are great. The writing and music may not feel very much like China, but it certainly looks like it. Since there’s no general consensus on when the Mulan legend takes place, they based the buildings on the Ming and Qing Dynasties (the 1300’s to the early 1900’s). They chose a simpler design than previous movies like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in favour of a watercoloured look that resembles Chinese paintings from that era. They also looked at early silent films and spaghetti westerns as inspiration for lighting and staging in ways that wound enhance the characters. This all gives the movie a unified appearance that works very well with its setting and tone.
To show the large crowds, whether in Forbidden City during the climax or the large Hun army, they developed new software called Atilla. The software allowed for a crowd of 3,000 people in the Forbidden City climax. They also used new software to add depth to 2-dimmensional paintings that they used in a handful of environments. During the scene where everyone bows to Mulan, they actually used footage of real people bowing in the foreground.
The music doesn’t fare quite as well as the animation. The core soundtrack is generally well done, with a mix of Eastern and Western style tunes. The songs on the other hand are very mixed. “Reflection”, Mulan’s song, is a great dramatic number exploring her venerability. She’s wondering when her reflection will show who she really is, effectively digging into her emotional state of mind. “I’ll Make a Man out of You” is the best song in the movie by far. It’s sung during the training montage, and it sounds glorious from start to finish. “Honor To Us All” on the other hand is really lame, with a tune that sounds like a Chinese jingle. It also features dumb lyrics like “Ancestors, hear my plea; help me not to make a fool of me”. Someone got paid to write that.
The movie also ends with a jarring jazz number that doesn’t match the rest of the movie at all, and it continues into the credits. Closing a movie with a song that clashes with the rest of the movie usually isn’t the way to go unless you’re making a parody film. Last I checked, Mulan is an attempt at a serious dramatic war film with one comedic sidekick.
As a whole, I’d say this movie is good. Not great, and certainly not without its noticeable flaws, but good. Mulan is a fantastic lead character and a great role model, and most of the supporting cast is also good. The main thing that holds this movie back for me is Mushu, and the mixed song quality holds the movie back as well. I would still recommend this one though. It’s a good kid friendly action movie that some adults will enjoy as well, and if you enjoyed this one as a kid, you’ll probably still enjoy it now.
Next up is Tarzan, the last of the Disney Renaissance movies and yet another one I’ve only seen once. After that, there are three movies that all released in the year 2000. Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur and The Emperor’s New Groove. Once I get through Tarzan, I might be slowing down for a bit so I can keep up with my Camp Nanowrimo project. That and the early 2000’s is quite possibly the worst period for Disney’s animated movies in terms of quality, and I might need to take it slow for my own sanity.
Also I’m not doing a Pocahontas vs. Mulan post, because Mulan is factually better and it’s not worth my time to tell you why.
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