Well, folks, we’re back with another, long-delayed installment of Saturday Morning Cartoons! What can I say–it’s been a busy summer. We still have two films left to cover in our examination of the “classic” Disney canon–the final two movies released during the period popularly known as the “Disney Renaissance.” This week, we’ll be tackling 1998’s Mulan, and next Saturday, we’ll wrap up our Disney series with a post on 1999’s Tarzan. After that, we’ll be moving on to look at other, non-Disney animated films from the classic Hollywood period … shorts, features, and everything in between.
For more than sixty years, since before the 1937 release of Walt Disney’s first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the center of the studio’s animation department had been in California. Quartered in Burbank and originally dubbed the “Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio,” Walt Disney Animation Studios (as it is now called) was responsible for the bulk of the production on all major Disney animated releases. In the meantime, the Florida branch of the department, working out of the latest addition to the Disney World theme park, the Disney-MGM Studios (opened in 1989; redubbed Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2008), had little to do. The animators had contributed nominal portions to some of the Disney Renaissance films and had been responsible for the 1990 animated Roger Rabbit short “Roller Coaster Rabbit,” but their main job seemed to be to serve as live “props” on the Disney-MGM studio tour.
That changed in 1993, when production began on Mulan. When the film was released in 1998, it became the first full-length animated feature produced almost entirely in Florida. Before the Florida studios were shuttered (as a cost-saving measure) in 2003, they would produce two more features: 2002’s Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear the following year. But Mulan was undoubtedly the highlight of the Florida studio’s admittedly limited output.
The protagonist of the film is a young Chinese woman named Fa Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na). Her mother and grandmother try to prepare her for womanhood by taking her to a matchmaker so an unwilling Mulan can find a husband. The meeting is a disaster, however, and the matchmaker denounces Mulan, telling her that she will be a “disgrace” to her family. Soon after, the emperor (Pat Morita) must pull together an army to fight the invading forces of the Huns, led by the dreaded warrior Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), and orders that one male from every family in China must enlist. Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou, a crippled veteran of past wars, proudly steps forth to represent his family, much to his daughter’s horror. In the middle of the night, she cuts off her hair, steals her father’s sword and armor, and runs away to join the army in his place, disguised as his “son,” Ping. Knowing that Mulan will be killed if her ruse is discovered, Fa Zhou prays to the family’s ancestors to protect her, and by mistake, a tiny, temperamental dragon named Mushu (Eddie Murphy) is sent to serve as Mulan’s guide. Though life in the army is a difficult adjustment for Mulan, she eventually earns the respect of her fellow soldiers and their captain, Li Shang (B.D. Wong). The troops are tasked with preventing Shan Yu’s march into the Imperial City, and a quick-thinking Mulan saves the day and becomes a hero–until her ruse is discovered. When she discovers that Shan-Yu is still on the path to the City, Mulan must convince her former “brothers in arms” to help her stop the villain from killing the emperor and conquering China.
Mulan is based on a Chinese legend related in the poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” which dates back as early as the sixth century AD. The Disney adaptation took some liberties with the tale, changing some of the facts to suit their version of the tale. For example, originally, Mulan had a younger brother who would have had to take their father’s place if Mulan had not stepped in. The characters of Mushu and Cri-Kee, Mulan’s animal helpmates, were added to appeal to younger viewers (as we all know, it’s next to impossible for Disney to produce a film without an adorable animal sidekick or three). Disney also changed one crucial point: in the folk tale, Mulan is never discovered to actually be a woman, while the film’s climax centers around this revelation and its aftermath. The final act of the film, in which Mulan faces Shan-Yu one-on-one in an attempt to save the emperor, was staged specifically for the movie. The romance with Shang was also added to give the film a romantic subplot (because, again, it’s not Disney unless there’s some lovin’ going on somewhere).
In order to capture the authenticity of the film’s setting, the animators spent several weeks in China, taking numerous photographs and sketching potential backdrops and character ideas. The stylization of the animation pays homage to Chinese artistic tradition, giving the film the look of a moving watercolor painting. The movie also incorporates elements of computer animation: hordes of Huns were computer-generated into the snowy battle scene, and the final scenes in the Imperial City were created by ingeniously superimposing live crowd footage onto the animated set-up.
Mulan is one of my favorite films from the Disney Renaissance period. In large part, this has to do with the characterization of the title figure, who is one of the more proactive Disney heroines. She demonstrates bravery, loyalty, and determination, and a willingness to sacrifice herself to protect not only her family and friends, but her entire country. Her struggles to “fit in” and meet the standards set for her by her family and by society as a whole are greatly relatable–after all, who hasn’t ever felt out of place? Plus, Mulan is a bit of a smart-ass, which makes her appeal to me even more (it is weird to me, though, that Disney now considers Mulan one of their signature “Disney Princesses,” even though she isn’t royalty and, in truth, isn’t all that “princess-y”).
However, I wouldn’t go so far as some critics in calling her a “feminist” role model for young girls. True, through her actions, Mulan shows that girls can do anything boys can do (and, as Annie Get Your Gun told us so many years ago, they can do it better, too), but in order for Mulan to even get the chance to break out of her prescribed gender role, she has to … well, change genders. It’s only through disguising herself as a man that Mulan is able to prove her worthiness, for, as we see in the opening scenes of the film, Mulan is considered a failure as a woman. The song “Honor to Us All” sets up the premise that “a girl can bring her family/great honor in one way/by striking a good match,” but the subsequent episode with the matchmaker shows how ill-suited Mulan is to the overtly feminine “virtues” necessary to land a husband. As she reflects on the disastrous meeting later, through the song appropriately titled “Reflection,” Mulan muses that she “will never pass for a perfect bride/or a perfect daughter,” and wonders, “When will my reflection show/who I am inside?” When she joins the army, Shang promises to “make a man out of you,” and those adopted masculine traits are what eventually define her character and her actions throughout the remainder of the film. Still, it is amusing to note that the tables are turned somewhat in the end, as three of Mulan’s soldier buddies, Yao, Ling, and Chien Po, must dress in drag as concubines in order to infiltrate Shan-Yu’s defenses and save the emperor.
Mulan not only out-grossed its predecessor, 1997’s Hercules, but also met with more positive critical reception. However, like Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame before it, the soundtrack to Mulan did not reach the levels of musical success as earlier Renaissance films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. The soundtrack features one mainstream radio release, Christina Aguilera’s pop version of “Reflection,” which is credited with launching the erstwhile pop princess’ career, but it was not a major hit. The film’s version of the song is performed by Lea Salonga, who also provides the singing chops for Princess Jasmine in Aladdin. And Donny Osmond provides the singing voice of Shang–he is instantly recognizable belting out “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.”
Overall, Mulan is an infinitely-watchable film with a great story and engrossing, fun characters. The voice cast is impeccable–even Eddie Murphy, whose shtick normally makes me want to poke things in my ears, is endearing as the lovably annoying Mushu (though, in retrospect, I can’t help but hear Shrek’s Donkey when listening to the character). Mulan’s not a perfect heroine (is there even such a thing?), but she’s inspiring and entertaining, and in the end, what more could you ask for from your lead character?