We’re down to the final three films of the 90s – the Disney Decade – and it’s evident that the company was resting on their laurels. Everything from the animation, the songs, and the stories screamed of recycling and an overall loss of heart that we hadn’t seen since the beginning of the decade. Mulan is a derivative take on material we’ve watched previously; the true story (complete with mystical elements and a wise granny) are torn from Pocahontas, while the theme of perseverance despite being an outcast in society was just done in Hercules. Mulan is significantly better than the latter film, but fails to be as consistently entertaining or as well-assembled as the former. Sadly, Mulan fails to touch on any of the Disney Renaissance films and continues to ring the death knell for animation that would be coming in a few short years.
Mulan (Ming-Na) is a Chinese woman forced to go into the Imperial Army after her father is called into service. Masquerading as a young man named Ping, Mulan must keep her secret in order to destroy the Huns.
I have little background knowledge on the true story of Mulan (although a cursory glance at Wikipedia mentions it’s generally perceived to be true, although chronology is spotty), but Disney had hoped the movie would smooth over relations with China after the studio released a pro-Dalai Lama documentary the same year. With Pocahontas, the story was well-known in American popular culture and thus the problems with it arose from knowing our own history; with Mulan, we lose that because American audiences possess little to no knowledge about Chinese ideology. The culture within Mulan shies away from showing the stereotypical horrible things we’ve come to consider integral to Chinese culture – such as foot binding and concubines – but we’re immediately told to see this culture as backward. Mulan’s meeting with the matchmaker is considered the apotheosis of family honor, and when she acts like a fool – due to more unnecessary cuddly side characters – it’s believed to be the worst thing she could do. Women are cattle in this time period, and while China has improved in their treatment of women, they’re still the subservient class due to cultural ideology all of which is lost on American audiences.
In its place is a decent attempt to tell the tale of a woman fighting for position in a world, and a profession, that doesn’t accept her gender. Sadly, all of this is undermined by the end when Mulan ends up getting everything she wanted, as well as securing the love of Shang (voiced by the awesome BD Wong) which is what will make her family and society happy. See kids, you can have everything in an oppressive society that never needed to change! Yes, similar to Pocahontas, the society never changes, but Mulan adapts to it. In order to be taken seriously she must become a man, which would be a strong way of showing how poorly respected women are, and how Mulan is better than her male comrades; but it’s all lessened by placing Mulan in situations that felt ripped from Just One of the Guys, such as a nude swimming sequence that should be great to explain to your children. Of course, there’s also a need to push away from cries of homosexuality, or in the belief that what Mulan is doing has anything to do with her desire to live life a different way. Case in point: a slew of “drag” jokes that feel anachronistic and downright hostile to transgendered and transvestite viewers. It’s understandable that for children these topics are intense, but why throw in jokes like the ancient gods talking about “your granddaughter was a cross-dresser” or the climax involving Mulan’s friends dressing up as women…but Shang dressing like a man? It sends a mixed message that cross-dressing is unnatural or the punchline to a joke.
As it was with Pocahontas, the script turns the Chinese religion into a fantasy based on magic, complete with a giant dance party involving “ancient ones” at the end; we’re also given a jive-talking fairy godmother in the guise of Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy). The casting directors wanted to be as authentic as they could with the vocal cast…which is why Mulan, Shang, and a few side characters are voiced by Asian actors. The rest includes the aforementioned Murphy, Harvey Fierstein, Miguel Ferrer, and June Foray! Diversity, everyone! Keep in mind that none of the singers are Asian (another similarity to Pocahontas). Murphy takes a page from Robin Williams and James Woods’ playbook by doing schtick with no connection to the time period; he gives a sermon complete with gospel music that made me start looking for the Muses from last week’s film. If you think June Foray’s voice and character of Grandma is similar, you’re not wrong. The voice isn’t the same – Linda Hunt voiced Grandmother Willow – but the animation and purpose of the character are essentially the same; there’s also a sequence involving Grandma crossing the street that helped me think I was watching a Mister Magoo movie.
So you know what I dislike about Mulan, but what about what I do like? The vocal cast of Ming-na and BD Wong provide authenticity and elevate the movie above a children’s film and into serious drama. If only this wasn’t tamped down by additional cutesy characters including a dog, a cricket, and the aforementioned Mushu. Wong and Ming-na have a suitable chemistry for a vocal cast, and don’t perform with irony. The songs are also okay, although the best are “Honor to Us All,” “Make a Man Out Of You,” and “Reflection” which are all sung early in the film. The middle song is the best, combined with a fighting montage that is a fantastic bit of animation. The animation itself is a discernible improvement over last week’s television-esque drawings. The facial features of the characters are sharp and austere, with Mulan appearing to have similar features to Pocahontas. (It’s also frustrating that Mulan in the theme parks and marketing is wearing her matchmaker clothes, as opposed to her warrior wear; a similar problem that befell Pixar’s Princess Merida this year.)
Mulan is another faux-true story that desperately wants to recapture the spirit of Pocahontas and only mildly succeeds. The songs are split between memorable and disinterested; the animation is a notch above last week’s film, but there’s no “wow” moments; and the story is just a taste problematic for American audiences.
NEXT WEEK: Disney goes to the jungle with Tarzan!
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.