I saw Mulan when it came out in 1998, and for the second time yesterday. It’s a familiar story anyway, and things like the songs getting played in various places and the world being used in Kingdom Hearts meant it still felt familiar overall.
Oh, that and silly videos on Youtube of Jackie Chan taking a funny video for ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ very seriously.
The story has the same loose shape as the Chinese legend (which is so varied in the different retellings that it’s fine for Disney to put their own spin on it): a young woman takes her father’s place as a soldier in the army and distinguishes herself while dressed as a man. The main differences between this version and the usual outline of the Chinese tale, as my lovely mother was keen to tell me, are that the story only covers a few weeks or months, whereas Hua Mulan had a long military career, and that she didn’t end up killing herself by a riverside for the most tenuous of reasons, which if you’ve seen as many Chinese films as I have you know is pretty much the way a lot of their filmmakers like their stories to end.
I remember not having a very positive impression overall. I didn’t really like the simplistic designs or how the ‘Chinese’ look meant big flat noses and slanted eyes, and a few attractive characters doesn’t stop others looking like caricatures. Being obsessed with honour, kowtowing and ancestor worship doesn’t help. On the other hands, others read this as progressive, diverse and a good move for Disney. Arguments could rage on there indefinitely, but my first impression was that the film was even more problematic than Pocahontas and Aladdin. My enduring impression was also that I seriously felt the comedy sidekick dragon, basically animated as Tigger’s head on Timon’s body with Eddie Murphy trying too hard to make the impression Robin Williams did, should not have been the one to deal the final and decisive blow to the big bad guy.
While one of very few films I didn’t manage to link in my recent The Fox and the Hound review, this film was still very important as a stepping-stone, it being where CG for crowd scenes developed from stampeding wildebeest to great numbers of people about whom the camera can pan and tilt. The designs may not be my favourite, but the animation is superb. The songs are also the strongest since The Lion King, including Tangled, though I personally dislike the lauded incidental music, which sounds to me like an 80s synthesiser. Plus it brought the world Christina Aguilera as a solo artist. But the story, while a little hollow and full of stock characters rather than ones that seem unique or heartfelt, works fine and the pacing is great.
Not as bad a film as I had convinced myself, it is also flawed in several ways, making it a good, but not a superb Disney film.