Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 6 June 1998

As I mentioned in my Hercules writeup, Disney was going to start doing some different things after that film. Nothing serious, at least not yet, but with Mulan, they tried adjusting the mix of the formula that was (if you believe the box office receipts) beginning to grow a little stale. The Disney Animated Features were still quite successful financially, of course, but not as much so as The Lion King or Aladdin had been.

The changes for Mulan were subtle but clear. First, there were fewer songs, which prevented this fairly fast-paced movie from dragging too much. Also, the focus was not on a romance of any sort, but rather on the action, adventure, comedy, and characterization of the heroine.

Mulan was probably a real person, but her story has been so mythologized in China that no definitive version of it exists. Thus it was well-suited for adaptation by Disney, particularly as their main audience was completely unfamiliar with it.

In the Disney version, Fa Mulan is a young, intelligent, independent Chinese maiden who, after a disasterous evaluation by the local matchmaker, begins to think she'll never fit in. "When will my reflection show," she asks, "who I am inside?" In typical Disney heroine fashion, she's discontent with what tradition says her life should be and wants more.

Her father, decorated war veteran Fa Zhou, is suprisingly supportive of her, and although he worries that she won't find a husband, he knows that his daughter must find her way in her own time.

Fate forces her hand, though, as the Huns invade China from the north. The Emperor conscripts one man from each family in China to join the army. But Mulan has no brothers or uncles, leaving her ailing father (an old war injury) to accept the duty. Mulan is furious; she sneaks out in the middle of the night, after cutting her hair and taking her father's armor and sword, to join the army as Fa Ping, her fictional brother.

The Fa family ancestors fear she will bring disgrace on the family by impersonating a man, and through an unfortunate accident, the dragon sent to stop her is the diminuitive and disgraced Mushu. Mulan convinces Mushu to let her continue, and she joins the army. She then must keep her secret and earn the respect of the other soldiers, all while dealing with the invading Huns...

The Mulan of this film is a fairly typical Disney heroine, if a bit younger. She's smart, independent, and she refuses to bow to tradition, no matter what. The difference here is that the Mulan of legend was the same way, and the story requires it of her; previous Disney heroines were generally written that way as a change from the source material (if any). Also a change is that Mulan is driven not by romance but by honor; the little romantic content in the film is an afterthought (due perhaps to Mulan's age).

The animation used to bring this wonderful tale to life is beautiful. Of particular note are the opening shots of the Great Wall of China, the cherry blossoms in the Fa backyard, and the scenes of the Forbidden City itself. Most outstanding, however, is a shot of hundreds of Huns on horseback, charging down a snow-covered slope. Although the scene was created with the help of computers (much like the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, but better), the assistance is invisible to the viewer and produces an awe-inspriring effect.

David Zippel, the lyricist for Hercules, is back for Mulan, but not Alan Menken. Instead, Zippel is joined by another virtual unknown, Matthew Wilder (known only for his single hit, "Break My Stride", which he wrote and performed in 1983) as composer of Mulan's songs. On the other hand, the scoring work (previously also Menken's job) was taken over by veteran movie composer Jerry Goldsmith.

The songs themselves are mostly forgettable and fairly pedestrian -- nothing that's gonna be hummed incessantly after leaving the theater. But there are a few good moments. "I'll Make a Man Out of You" shows the efforts of Captain Li Shang to whip the new recruits into shape. He despairs of ever doing so until Mulan (in her guise as Ping) learns that wits are as important as strength. The irony of the title being applied to Mulan is not ignored. Part of the song is reprised later, when three of Mulan's tough-guy buddies dress up as concubines; they reveal their painted faces as the music begins: "Be a man!" Also notable is "A Girl Worth Fighting For," not for the music itself, but for the way this comedic, light-hearted song ends, abruptly, just before the last note -- the music interrupted as Captain Li's squad comes across the quiet desolation of a recent battlefield.

Disney gained some rare compliments from its critics for hiring an almost entirely Asian cast for this film -- and they aren't unknowns, either. Actress Ming-Na (then Ming-Na Wen) leads the cast as Mulan (and Broadway actress Lea Salonga provides her singing voice, as she did for Jasmine). B. D. Wong, now Dr. Huang on Law & Order : Special Victims Unit, voiced Captain Li (with Donny Osmond singing). Famous comedian Eddie Murphy pulls a Robin Williams as the wise-cracking, jive-talking Mushu. His voice and mannerisms are completely anachronistic, but they work (amazingly), and he makes the character extremely funny (at times).

I'm not done yet! Voiceover actor Miguel Ferrer, the son of Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer, voiced the evil Hun leader Shan-Yu. Pat Morita, best known as Arnold on Happy Days and Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid movies, lends dignity to the role of the Emperor. Hikaru Sulu himself, George Takei, voiced the First Ancestor of the Fa family. Gedde Watanabe, best known as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, voices one of Mulan's fellow soldiers. Also on hand is veteran voice actress June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Grammi Gummi, Looney Tunes' Granny, etc.) as Grandmother Fa.

The film's score was nominated for an Academy Award, and for once, I'd argue the loss (to Shakespeare in Love) was deserved, despite the presence of Jerry Goldsmith. The music isn't bad, but it's not the film's strong point. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible for animated films to compete in most Oscar categories. On the other hand, the film cleaned house at the Annie Awards, proving that Disney was still on top when it came to animated features -- but then, its only real competition that year was 1997's Anastasia.

Mulan is scheduled to get a direct-to-video sequel in 2003, but information on it is, as yet, scarce. None of the possibilities seem appealing, but we'll see.

Mulan is a fine action/adventure/comedy film, and although it had all of the elements of Disney's recent successful formula, it changed the mix, emphasizing the action and character development rather than music and romance. It clearly laid the groundwork for the big changes exhibited by Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and so could mark the beginning of the second phase of Disney's revitalization of its animated features.

Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.