Screenplay : Rita Hsiao, Chris Sanders, Philip LaZebnik, Raymond Singer, Eugene Bostwick-Singer
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1998
Disney's latest animated epic, "Mulan," is certainly one of its more ambitious efforts. Without straying too far from its successful and oft-imitated formula, "Mulan" manages to encompass much more than the usual kiddy fare. First-time directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook have essentially combined the best elements of Disney's last two (lesser) efforts -- the darkness of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996) and the throwaway lunacy of "Hercules" (1997) -- to dramatic effect.
"Mulan" is the re-telling of an ancient Chinese fable about the titular girl (voiced by Ming-Na Wen when speaking, and Lea Salonga when singing), who impersonates a man in order to take her father's place in the Imperial Army of feudal China. As a character, Mulan is much like other recent Disney heroines -- smart, spunky, and woefully underappreciated for what she can really do. Her rigid, gender-coded society wants to make her into one of those painted ladies with white faces and red lips, whose importance in society extends only as far as correctly pouring a cup of tea. Alas, this is not for Mulan.
When the Huns invade China, and the Emperor (Pat Morita) orders than one man from every family must serve in the army, Mulan slips into her father's position because he is old and crippled, and will surely die in battle. Of course, for her to impersonate a man in the army is not only dishonorable to her family, but also a form of high treason that will result in her death if she is discovered.
"Mulan" deals with a number of contemporary questions via this 13th-century tale. The most obvious is the gender battle that has been raging in society since its inception. While it is hardly new ground for Disney to cover, here it feels a little more sincere. While the gender clash is sometimes used for some good humor (especially some cross-dressing jokes that will probably zoom right over the heads of little ones), there is one line that really brings it all home -- after Mulan's gender has been discovered, she attempts to continue aiding her army companions, but they will no longer pay attention to her. When she seems confused, she is informed, "Remember, you're a girl now." It's a simple, throwaway line, but it still packs a punch with its directness: girl = not important..
Even though Mulan is quite feminine, she is not quite so feminine (read: shapely) as some of her preceding Disney heroines. She proves that she's as capable as any man, but she's not androgynous. Many will complain that with all its pro-female huffing and puffing, "Mulan" trips on a conventional Western-style love story. Somehow the notion of a strong, independent woman still feeling weak in the knees for a hunky man rubs some people the wrong way. However, the love story is not only a time-honored movie tradition, but it helps maintain Mulan's femininity without sacrificing her strength as a human being, male or female. Love cuts across all lines, and for what it's worth, the movie leaves the romantic conclusion somewhat open.
"Mulan" is also a bit more adult that most other animated offerings. I can't remember the last time a kid's film had not only a skinny-dipping scene, but also dealt with the brutal violence of war. Obviously, the film is rated G, so there are no gratuitous aspects to either the implied nudity of Mulan trying to hide her body from her fellow male swimmers, or the implied bloodshed, which is most affecting in a scene that simply shows a body-strewn battlefield. In terms of both sex and violence, "Mulan" shows that when Hollywood creators really put their minds to it, they can be adult without being obscene.
On a technical level, the animation display in "Mulan" is simply fantastic (no surprise there). With each new movie, the Disney animators continue to hone their craft to fine precision. Using deft blends of carefully hand-drawn art and computer animation, they succeed in giving many scenes a three-dimensional appearance. The most jaw-dropping are an opening scene on the Great Wall of China, a thundering charge by thousands of Hun warriors on horseback down a snowy mountainside, and an elaborate parade involving hundreds of celebrants with torches, balloons, and fireworks in the Imperial City.
But the animation is much more than just spectacle. Watch closely during the dialogue between characters, and observe how painfully accurate the emotions are rendered. Small twitches of the corners of the mouth, a slightly raised eyebrow, the almost imperceptible widening of the eyes, a tilt of the face -- all of these traits blend together to add real emotion vibrancy to what is effectively paint and plastic.
The always-reliable comic relief in this otherwise quite serious tale comes courtesy of Eddie Murphy, who lends his raucous voice to Mushu, a disgraced dragon who was once one of the protectors of Mulan's family. In the tradition of Robin Williams' Genie from "Aladdin" (1992), Murphy tears into the material with comic ferocity. The Disney animators were good enough to make Mushu -- who resembles more of a scrawny dog than a dragon -- a humorous vision equal to Murphy's voice.
However, some of the other characters don't fare as well. While Mulan is a fully-realized heroine, her love interest, the army captain and military trainer, Shang (B.D. Wong), never comes alive. The scenes between him and Mulan never quite jell, which is a significant loss to the story. Mulan is such a dynamic character, that it is only right that the man she develops a crush on should at least be interesting.
The token baddie in "Mulan" is the Hun leader, Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer), whose vampiric appearance seems like a animated, muscle-bound version of Gary Oldman in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992). Unfortunately, Shan-Yu is also the movie's weakest character. While he is certainly frightening, he is devoid of any memorable character traits; there's none of the witty, sneering evil of recent Disney bad guys like Jahfar from "Aladdin," Ursella from "The Little Mermaid" (1989), or Scar from the "Lion King" (1994). Instead, Shan-Yu spends most of his limited screen-time glowering, growling, and throwing threatening stares.
The only other thing sorely lacking in "Mulan" is a good song. Aside from a witty opening number depicting the civilized ridiculousness of Mulan attempting to convince a matchmaker that she's a proper lady, the musical numbers are downright apathetic. It almost brings up the question of whether or not songs are even needed; "Mulan" stands on its own as a good story well told, and the songs feel like afterthoughts that are more intrusive than illuminating in terms of story development and rhythm. You can imagine the film's creators sitting around, scratching their heads and saying, "Yeah, I know it's good the way it is, but it's a Disney movie. There have to be songs! Now, where can we put them?"
©1998 James Kendrick