Monday, December 17, 2012

Mulan (1998) - The Disney Movie About the Song of Fa Mu Lan

Mulan: Everybody's Favorite Cross-Dresser

DVD cover Mulan 1998

Patriotism knows no gender, and "Mulan" (1998), directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, portrays a young woman determined to help her country by fighting for it. While no princess, the title character Mulan is usually included with that select group of Disney characters. "Mulan" is based on a Chinese legend (set forth in the traditional Chinese poem "The Song of Fa Mu Lan"). Disney has made a live-action version of "Mulan" with a release date of 27 March 2020, but this original animated version still is fun to watch.

Mulan 1998

The story seems to occur in many other countries as well - that of the plucky female who disguises herself as a male to achieve her unconventional ends. Mulan is a very popular character who remains highly visible in the Disney universe, currently appearing as a regular character in the ABC television series "Once Upon a Time."

DVD disc Mulan 1998
The Mulan DVD - as usual for Disney DVDs, brilliant artwork.
In ancient China, the government mobilizes the citizenry to combat an invasion by the dreaded Huns. Each family must provide one male member. Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh), the only male in his family, is too old to serve, so his tomboy daughter, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), disguises herself as a male named "Ping" to take his place. Fa Zhou prays to his ancestors, who provide the small dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy) as Mulan's adviser and protector.

Yao, Ling, Chien-Po Mulan 1998
The "Trio" of Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po.
Joining troops headed by Li Shang (BD Wong, singing by Donny Osmond), Mulan becomes a competent warrior. Mushu arranges for the troops to be ordered into the mountains in relief of General Li, who is Li Shang's father. There, they find that General Li and his troops have been destroyed. The Hun ambush Li Shang's troops as they try to leave, and only Mulan's use of a rocket to start an avalanche saves them.

Mushu Mulan 1998
Mushu the mighty!
Mulan is wounded in the battle, and her gender is revealed during treatment. Li Shang does not execute her for being an imposter as required but leaves her on the mountain. After everyone else leaves, Mulan sees that many of the Hun soldiers are not killed in the battle and remain a threat to the Emperor.

Mushu in Mulan 1998
Mushu at work.
Mulan goes down to the Imperial City to warn Li Shang, but he ignores her. The Huns attack and capture the Emperor (Pat Morita), barricading themselves in the palace. Mulan devises a stratagem for Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Ling (Gedde Watanabe) and Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo) to enter the palace disguised as concubines and defeat the Huns with Li Shang's troops.

Mulan challenges the Hun leader, Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer), onto the roof for single combat. Mushu, meanwhile, is ready with rockets and fires them when Shan Yu is in the right spot on the roof, killing him. Everybody honors Mulan for her service, but one question remains for her: will she ever find true love?

Mulan and Mushu Mulan 1998
Mulan picking up Mushu.
"Mulan" is a heroic tale of valor and wit. By breaking the rules, Mulan spares her unfit father from having to serve in the military, and her own military sense enables the Chinese to defeat the Hun. Everybody can feel good about the character, as she goes to extreme lengths to do the right thing for her family and the country.
Mulan holding hand to Li Shang Mulan 1998
Grab hold!
A high point of the film for many is the music. Jerry Goldsmith wrote the score, while Matthew Wilder and David Zippel contributed five songs. Former Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera was a featured singer and did a wonderful job, kick-starting her career as a pop star.

Mulan 1998

"Reflection" was the big hit from the show. Lea Salonga, who previously sang as Princess Jasmine in "Aladdin," did the singing for Mulan. Donny Osmond also performed a song that many like, "I'll Make a Man Out of You."

Mulan and Mushu Mulan 1998
Mulan with Mushu.
The animation is wonderful, as always the case with Disney Animation Studios products. Several new techniques had to be developed to portray the crowd scenes shown in the film.

Mulan 1998

A sort of precursor to true 3D, a technique called "faux plane," added depth to several shots in s subtle way.

Reading in garden Mulan 1998
Mulan at home in the garden.
Not everybody is in love with this film. Some do not find the songs particularly memorable, despite (or perhaps because of) Aguilera's trademark heady vocals (and you can blame or thank "Mulan" for Aguilera's entire career, for that matter).

Mulan sword
The story is a bit trite, with the plucky girl who naturally turns out to be a better strategist than any man, and it is not as if the outcome is going to be any great mystery. You would think that with a total of 30 (!) writing credits that the script would have been better.

Mulan in partial shadow Mulan 1998
Mulan, a woman of mystery.
There are those who think the whole idea of a female having to pretend to be a male in order to succeed is insulting to females, but the story is what it is, it is a historical legend and not something that Disney just made up based on market research or something like that.

Mulan 1998

"Mulan" adds yet more proof to the growing stack that you just can't please everyone.

Demonstrating swordplay Mulan 1998
I can do anything you can do better!
Mulan has become an iconic figure for many, a symbol of heroism and determination. The voice actors are all excellent, with Eddie Murphy a stand-out as Mushu. Many top Asian-American actors were used for the English voice work, and Jackie Chan voiced Li Shang in the Chinese version and sang a song as well.

Mulan and Li Shang Mulan 1998
Would you like to stay for dinner?
"Mulan" made a lot of money and was considered a big success. However, "Mulan" could have made even more if Disney had not been on the outs with the Chinese government at the time (over a film that Disney had funded about the Dalai Lama, "Kundun").

Mulan 1998

The Chinese got even for that previous slight by scheduling "Mulan" for a soft part of their film year, after New Year's. That is sort of like scheduling a superhero film in the U.S. in February, which is not a good release time because schoolkids are still in school.

"Mulan" still did well worldwide anyway, out-grossing the previous two Disney releases ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Hercules"). This kept the "Disney Renaissance" that began with "The Little Mermaid" on track. However, it could have done much better business in China (although some Chinese were a bit upset by some details that Disney got wrong - but then, Disney traditionally never cares about details in its animation, it is the story and the audience experience that count). Instead, "Mulan" did just okay in China. Now, doing "just okay in China" still means it made a lot of money there, but just not as much as it might have with proper government support.

Mulan 1998

Direct-to-video "Mulan II" followed six years later, one of the last of the Disney movie sequels to previous hits before they stopped doing that (it was devaluing the brand).

With the emperor Mulan 1998
"You saved us all"
Most people consider "Mulan" to be a fine story about a feminist icon, like Xena or Wonder Woman or similar female fighters. If you want to view it that way, wonderful, but also try thinking about her as just a normal girl trying to do the right thing. "Mulan" is not quite in the same class as the top tier of Disney Renaissance releases such as "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," but, then, few films are. "Mulan" makes for a fine evening's entertainment.

The official trailer is below.

And, here is the official Disney teaser trailer for the live-action version.


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