Disney decided to venture a bit out of their comfort zone for “Mulan”, a loose adaptation of the Chinese legend of “Hua Mulan”. The story is as follows: the Huns are invading so the Emperor decrees that one man from every family in the Empire must enlist to fight off the threat. Given how large the population of the Empire is, you’d think this’d be a sizable number. In actuality, it’s about a dozen people. A lot of girls were born that generation, I guess. Fa Zhou, an old war hero is forced to step-up since his only child is Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), a clumsy girl who can’t seem to fit in. She’s expected to be a certain type of lady, but she can’t conform to society’s expectations. The shame.
Mulan’s father needs a cane to walk, so obviously he’s not going to be much help to an army of fourteen. Not against a horde of barbarians. Mulan steals his armor and pretends to be his son, throwing herself headfirst into a war. Oh, and she’s got help from Eddie Murphy as a red lizard.
To begin, the Disney animation studio from this period is still at the top of their game. There was nothing outside Japan to contend with their vibrant colors, fluid animation, and massive worlds. The visual style here attempts to add a more Asian feel, but it still resembles an American style as much as the previous films. They push for an epic scale, and this is best shown in the spectacular battle sequence in the mountains. Mulan and her army of fourteen dudes decide to fight the entirety of the Hun army. Thousands of men on horses charge at them in the snow, only to be defeated when she creates an avalanche to even the odds. The animation is amazing, watching her ride through a mountain of falling snow and ice as she tries to rescue her captain.
It’s another musical, though this time Jerry Goldsmith, Matthew Wilder, and David Zippel are in charge as opposed to Alan Menken. The music is fine, for the most part. Generally speaking, there’s no stand out musical number to match the likes of “Beauty and the Beast”, “Friend Like Me”, or other classics like “A Whole New World”. There’s nothing terrible, but the only song that really sticks out is the almost ‘80s-style power montage, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, where Mulan and the so-called army train to become soldiers. Even being sung by Donny Osmond (not exactly a name you’d think of in a Chinese legend), it’s very catchy. Another great musical scene is when Mulan initially steals her father’s armor. It’s a stormy night, there’s no sound other than the music, and the music is a pounding synth beat. Frankly, it’s awesome.
The weaker aspects come from Disney’s handling of the story in a more basic sense. Their idea of “Chinese” can be reduced to one word: honor. Everything is about honor. Bring honor to your family, honor to your ancestors, honor to the country, bringing dishonor by doing this, getting ultimate dishonor for doing that, and so on. Everything about the culture is simplified to its most basic visual representation. I see a businessman in a boardroom, smoking a cigarette and looking over the script and storyboards. “As long as it sounds Asian, it’ll work. Make some references to Mongolian beef while you’re at it.”
Another complaint is the villain. Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) is about as generic as they come. He’s big, he’s mean, and that’s about all there is to say about him. Some of his best lines are simple, “Aarghs”. They tried to move away from another funny villain, but this guy’s not exactly Frollo. He’s forgettable and downright dull. That’s not to say there isn’t comedy here, and it comes from Mushu the Dragon, voiced by Eddie Murphy. This is yet another attempt to recapture Robin Williams as the Genie. In that regard, he’s okay. At first he’s kind of annoying, but he grows on you. He’s got a few good jokes here and there, even if he is a completely superfluous character.
Lastly, what always bothered me about this movie (and still does), is the ending. I’ll keep it general, but the entire movie we get Mulan rising above her expected station. She’s a very likeable character and we see her grow as she overcomes trial after trial. She proves herself to be as capable as and even better than any man in the army (again, that’s only about a dozen guys, but you get the idea). She saves the Empire and finds her place at the height of power, only to reject it for the status quo. I don’t understand why she should want to return to her place at home, waiting to be married off. This is partly what she ran away from in the beginning. After everything she’d done, she decided her place was back in the home?
As it is, “Mulan” is still worth checking out. It’s got decent music, beautiful animation, and a very strong female protagonist. It’s missing a bit of the old magic, which seems to be dwindling in this half of the decade anyway, but retains enough spectacle to still be memorable.