If you are reading all of my reviews you will remember my recent thoughts about Pocahontas. I was not a big fan. I felt the characters were more caricatures and everything was very predictable. It also bothered me a little bit that the Powhatan tribe had tried to help Disney tell the true story and they had been denied that opportunity and hated the end picture.
So, now we have Mulan= also telling a non-Caucasian ethnic group’s female legend story. Am I going to dislike it too?
Nope! I really enjoy Mulan.
The reason Mulan works better than Pocahontas is it has a layered and more complex lead character and aside from Mushu, it doesn’t try to teach Westerners or talk down to them. This is a story about a Chinese girl and all that she meets and interacts with are Chinese. Some of them are meant for humor but it is never cold and degrading. At least not to me.
I did look online for about an hour to see if I could find any blogs of Chinese or Chinese Americans who hated the film but for the most part it was all positive. (There were some hard-core feminists who still found fault with it. Geesh!).
Most of the movie is about Mulan fitting in and finding her place in the army. And that it does very well.
Mulan was released in 1998 and it was conceived as a way to appeal to the Chinese market. Lion King had been a huge success there and Disney was on thin ice with the government because of their funding of a live action movie about the Dali Lama in Tibet.
They took a poem called The Song of Fa Mu Lan and a book called China Doll and combined them together to get the story. Many scenes like the emperor’s palace were studied by the artists to be authentic.
They also used new technology made by Pixar to create thousands of soldiers in the battle scenes and they hold up very well- better than most CGI at that time.
They also do a good job teaching kids about the costs of war without showing death, wounds, blood etc.
Such scenes give the film real heart and gravity without becoming overbearing or too much for children.
It has some problems but overall I really like it.
The score was written by Jerry Goldsmith with songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. It only has 4 songs and 1 reprise but they are a lot of fun.
The Huns have attacked the Great Wall and word has gone out to the Emperor who decides to gather together an army to defeat the invaders.
Meanwhile Mulan is getting ready to appear before the matchmaker and be approved as a bride. We get our first of 4 songs which sets a nice tone and helps us understand Mulan’s predicament (kind of like Belle in Beauty and the Beast).
The matchmaking ceremony does not go well and Mulan seems devastated. It reminds me of Ariel in Little Mermaid- a girl not at home in her world, her body. If you haven’t gathered I love when that storyline is in a movie . I relate to it so much. I think a lot of girls do.
Desperate for a sense of belonging Mulan sings one of the better 90s Disney ballads sung beautifully by Lea Salonga (who was also Jasmine’s singing voice)
My favorite part of the character Mulan is how well- rounded and interesting she is. She doesn’t always behave the way you expect her too. She isn’t just willful and disobedient (like an Ariel wouldn’t have even shown up to the matchmakers). She’s trying to do what she is told but it isn’t working. Same is true in the army. She never has to be rescued at any point in the movie (actually her lowest is after the matchmaker, not after battle. Love that!).
The main catalyst for the movie starts with Mulan’s father Fa Zhou being asked to fight in the war against the Huns. Mulan tries to speak in his behalf but in doing so she shames him. With her father unwilling to dishonor himself or listen to her she takes matters into her own hands (also like Ariel) and sneaks off in his armor to join the army, as a man
The music and staging of this scene almost reminds me of an 80s action movie. (Pat Morita of Kirate Kid fame is the emperor in this movie btw).
Mulan’s ancestors hear of her leaving and accidentally send a dragon lizard to support her instead of a stone dragon. These ancestors are a little bit cringe-worthy but they are in the movie so briefly that I don’t think anyone will be offended by them.
The lizards name is Mushu, and he is the Genie of the movie, the fast talking comic relief voiced by Eddie Murphy. To be honest, I much prefer his voice work here to the Shrek movies. It is less shouty and the writing is less crude.
Arriving at the training camp Mulan muddles her way along, pretending to be a man, and learning to be a soldier. The fellow soldiers are a lot of fun and her trainer Li Shang (singing voice by Donny Osmond believe it or not) is tough without being too mean for kids.
I really like everything about this musical number:
There is also a very funny scene where all the soldiers surprise Mulan as she is bathing! This is good physical comedy
They end up going off to battle to try and help Li Shang’s father and we get our last song- A Girl Worth Fighting For.
but they have been caught and destroyed. Just then they are ambushed by the huns and we get our battle.
This is probably a good point to bring up Mulan’s greatest weakness as a movie- the villain. I watched it twice today and I still had no idea what his name is or anything else about him except he is a Hun. Even Edgar in the Aristocats had more personality than this guy. I’m going to say it- worst Disney villain ever. Honestly his hawk is less bland.
But in the battle with nameless villain army Mulan saves the day by creating an avalanche with a rocket but in celebrating she is wounded. Her secret is of course out as she is bandaged up. We get the classic ‘liar reveal’ story trope but it isn’t played to hard and Li Shang is angry but does not kill Mulan because she just saved his life.
The storytelling clips along so well in the movie. Hardly anything drags and I think that’s what makes it work so well even with a predictable moment like the liar reveal.
Mulan is left in disgrace and the army pushes forward to the Emperor. But as she mounts her horse Mulan see’s some of the Huns survived the avalanche and are heading towards the city. Racing Mulan warns Li Shang but he still feels betrayed by her and won’t listen, and the Huns take over the palace.
Through some creative thinking Mulan rallies the troops and they are able to defeat the Huns. I can’t imagine a kid in the world not enjoying this scene. It’s exciting, funny, and even with a lame villain it still works:
In a great moment Mulan is honored by the Emperor for her bravery and quick thinking.
Finally at the end we see Li Shang has forgiven Mulan and come to visit.
The movie is actually really rich and deep in its characters. I didn’t even go into the soldiers who are all funny, Mulan’s Grandma, a cute cricket, and a crotchety assistant to the emperor. We meet a lot of people yet the movie doesn’t feel cluttered or crowded. It is about a girl in the army so it is appropriate to have a large cast. Perhaps this makes up for having the lamest Disney villain?
Mulan is kind of like Tangled in a way. Both movies were made to please both boys and girls instead of the girl movie/boy movie philosophy so often employed by Disney. I think it completely succeeds in that appeal. Boys will like the action and humor from the soldiers and Mushu.
Girls will like Mulan because she can be their first warrior princess (ok. She’s not a princess but you know what I mean). Mulan is layered and interesting. She is unselfish but not without flaws. In fact, I think Mulan is one of Disney’s most dynamic characters.
Like I said, really my only flaw is the villain. I think one or two scenes giving him some personality would help the movie. As it is, the film certainly isn’t ruined by its villain.
The songs are more of the Aladdin/Lion King pop vibe, but I like them and the ancestors scenes are really the only cringe-worthy segments, which is saying a lot for Disney in an ethnic movie (usually not their strong suit).
They also do a good job blending in the traditional Chinese watercolors with the animation (see Girl Worth Fighting For…). The backdrops are also beautifully drawn with a watercolor flair. There are a lot of little touches like that which help it feel rich and textured.
But mainly I just like the character of Mulan a lot. She is definitely one of my favorites.
Overall Grade- A