Like every girl from the 90’s, I grew up with Mulan. Though not having seen it in maybe a decade, I still could recite many of the lines and of course sing along to all the songs. Disney post renaissance is often known as a subpar period. I categorize Mulan as still in a sweet spot before things really went south with Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. Sandwiched between Hercules and Tarzan, there’s still remnants of similar animation from the former (lots of swirly cloud designs) and the music that would show up in the latter (Mulan’s run away sequence is scored with synth that evokes Genesis). It very much comes off as a product of other products, building from tropes they know that work which is often why that if you didn’t grow up with this movie, it gets lost in the sea of pre-CGI animation. I realize there’s some nostalgic talking here but it’s got that Disney magic with gorgeous animation, catchy songs and some attempt at diversity that makes it more than worthwhile.
The strongest aspect that differentiates it from past Disney films is that Mulan is not a princess. I appreciate the message of subverting gender norms especially as a seven-year-old tomboy in ’98 although as unfeminine as I was/am, I wanted to be Meg from Hercules more than Mulan. Because it’s a kids movie, it hammers home Mulan’s “otherness” pretty hard in the first act. That becomes more laborious and on top of that the movie is trying to inform the young audience with a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese culture specifically the notion of honor which is repeated ad nauseum in the exposition. I can forgive the clunky set up because you still get to spend most of it with the main character and actress Ming-Na Wen who brings such life to the protagonist. She balances sweetness, innocence and vitality as the character progresses. Also in this introduction we get Mushu which is a very obvious rip-off of Aladdin’s Genie. While Eddie Murphy does a decent job as the dragon scamp, it’s in no way as hysterical as Robin William’s iconic ad-libs that make the Genie one of the greatest Disney characters of all time. The efforts pale in comparison of what the filmmakers were going for but I like the ways in which they work Mushu into the journey through basecamp and the battlefield both helping and hurting Mulan’s situation. The supporting cast once in the Imperial Army is the most spirited with the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Poa who I guess are added comic relief on top of Mushu. Harvey Fierstein as Yao, the least Asian of them all, still makes me smile.
In a more woke era almost twenty years later there’s more to question about the accurate representation of the Chinese in this movie. I’m the last person who should have any say in this as a white person but it’s a predicament for me of do you choose to appreciate that Disney made some effort into telling a non-white story or do you criticize that they didn’t try harder in diversifying the behind the scenes creators (majority of the creative team is caucasian). It takes a very simplistic view of China i.e. its decision to put so much emphasis that it’s a culture of honor and women hating but it’s 500 AD when all cultures devalued women. It’s also a simplistic depiction of the nomadic Hun people that fight the Imperial Army. The choice to make the villains noticeably Mongolian but with black eyes and a gray skin pigmentation is quite bold. The central villain Shan Yu is voiced by Miguel Ferrer which immediately disassociates that character from feeling anything close to Asian, maybe for the better.
PC-guilt aside, there’s still so many things to appreciate. I’m a sucker for traditional animation and this film is filled with some fantastic designs. It’s really elevated by the blending of CGI and animation for the sequences such as the mountainside battle with the Huns with sweeping ariels of stampeding soldiers, also the wider shots of the Emporer’s palace in which the extra dimensions emphasizes its grandness. I can’t hammer home enough how much I love the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” is a bonafide training montage song worth being listed next to the greats of “Circle of Life” and “Whole New World” and for real, Donny Osmond does a perfect BD Wong impression. I also find the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” not only fun but extremely emotionally effective when the lyrics are cut off by the destroyed of a village. Mulan is often an underestimated movie much like the main character herself. By appearance or reputation, it may seem light or harmless but when given a chance it packs one hell of a punch.