Disney’s “Mulan” (1998) Review

Image: Disney, Wikipedia.org

Does this film bring honor to the Disney Animated Canon?

PLOT –

When soldiers are needed for war against the Huns, young woman Mulan disguises herself as a man and enlists instead of her father to prove that she can honor her family.

This film has a similar plot structure to Hercules in the sense that a clumsy protagonist learns to hone their skills and improve. This is done too quickly here, with a sharp shift from clumsiness and failure to tact and success (once again, through a single song). While we see this motif of repeated failure throughout the film, a lot of it doesn’t directly come from Mulan and we never really see her fail specifically under her own power, until her long con is discovered, which has all the same beats we’ve seen before: a fall from grace leading to a rise to power at the end, and acceptance. It’s not different from other uses of this narrative device, and while the climax tries to reconcile this by having the army use Mulan’s tactics on the Huns, it seems trite and dismissive, ringing hollow.

There are a lot of plot point hit-and-misses in the film like this, where the dramatic or comedic portions don’t land one-hundred-percent, and if Mulan was certainly at fault for her mistakes and successes at the beginning and end of the film, instead of being helped or harmed by her animal friends or human companions, the plot would be so much stronger. That being said, the themes of generation gaps, gender transition, and wearing differently-gendered clothes are presented well here, albeit somewhat dated.

My PLOT RATING is 7 / 10.

CHARACTERS –

Mulan (Ming-Na Wen, Lea Salonga (singing)) is a strong character in this. She has drive and gusto, yet is held back by circumstances beyond her control, not letting her character breathe as much as she needs. She does make choices that are hers and hers alone, but usually another character either helps or harms her choice and sets the film in a different direction rather than if she did it herself. The other characters interfering is a major problem for her character, as aside from the pole climb and parts of the climax, she seems to lack the self-agency to push the other characters aside and fly solo.

Mushu (Eddie Murphy) is a hysterical character here. He’s the constant, consistent funny character, and his humor is on-point and timeless, saving the film at points. Murphy is firing on all cylinders here, and his delivery is excellent, playing the ‘magical mentor’ role well. Cri-Kee the cricket (Frank Welker once again) is cute, but interferes way too much in the plot, not in an annoying way, but despite being “lucky”, it causes nothing but trouble for Mulan.

An interesting note about Mushu and Cri-Kee is the film has a strange balance with how they are perceived by the outside world. They manage to forge a letter and disguise themselves as a soldier (riding a panda?) and it just drops the suspension of disbelief very hard. As more background characters, they’re fine with guiding Mulan, but this level of plot interference can be too much at times.

Shang (B.D. Wong) is a pretty good male lead here. He’s fair and just, wanting nothing more than to train his army to be strong and graceful, and he really cares. I like how he’s developed as a character along with Mulan, as they both want to make their families proud of them, and that he can see potential in Mulan, giving her chances left and right until there are no more chances to give. He is easily swayed by her, especially after he finds out her secret, and while he trusts her after that point, that trust does not feel earned.

Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) is the villain of the film. He can be mildly threatening, but he’s also very boring. He looks scary sometimes, but the voice actor used for him does not match his physical looks and prowess. It is a more high-pitched growl than a more fitting deep rumble, and more intimidation would go a long way in making him more memorable. He does appear throughout the film, yet his presence is seldom felt throughout, and his plans are obvious to the viewer before they are completed.

There are a lot of minor characters in this film. Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Ling (Gedde Watanabe, Matthew Wilder (singing)), and Chien-Po (Jerry S. Tondo) are your standard ‘three funny guys’, but they don’t really stand out other than to be an obstacle for Mulan or just to offer some general help. The film wouldn’t really be any different without them. Mulan’s parents, while not in the film as much, are voiced by Soon-Tek Oh and Freda Foh Shen. Chi Fu (James Hong), the Emperor’s secretary, and Grandmother Fa (June Foray) are both humorous characters that provide moments of levity and humor at points, while the Emperor (Pat Morita) and First Ancestor (George Takei) provide more of a serious side, but what’s more is that all four of them are accomplished actors, three of them Asian, and do a great job here.

My CHARACTERS RATING is 7 / 10.

DIALOGUE –

The dialogue here is quick and laced with quips, sarcasm, and irony and while several jokes more geared for adults than children, the humor and dialogue also focuses on the differences between adults and children; serious versus playful. The voice cast does a great job here, especially Eddie Murphy, bringing his hammy side as well as his softer side into the mix. However, some of the characters, particularly Shan-Yu, give less than stellar performances and lack the gravitas needed.

My DIALOGUE RATING is 9 / 10.

EFFECTS –

The effects in the film are done very well here. Light, fire, character animation, and water are all great here, with the addition of snow effects as well, the scale of the armies and crowd scenes, and the calligraphy intro is awesome, yet there isn’t much more aside from that to make much of a difference.

My EFFECTS RATING is 8 / 10.

MUSIC

The music in this film is pretty good. The score is timed well with the film, and includes some instrumental influences from China, setting it apart from the rest of the scores. The “Reflection” motif returns throughout the film, and serves as an anchor for the score.

“Honor to Us All” – The song that expands upon the conflict of the film. Light and bright with lyrics that are somewhat dark upon a deeper understanding.

“Reflection” – A beautiful song about the struggles Mulan’s inner want for acceptance and how she can honor her family. Simple, yet powerful and poignant.

“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” – The ‘training montage’ song, done better than in Hercules, remembered by many, and helps advance the plot, but has a jarring shift to success rather than failure at the end.

“A Girl Worth Fighting For” – Sung by the army, this song gives reason to why these men are fighting, for selfish or for noble. Notable for its abrupt ending and the last song in the film proper.

“True to Your Heart” – A pretty catchy song sung by Stevie Wonder and 98 Degrees. Tangentially relates to themes of the film, but serves mostly as a credits song.

My MUSIC RATING is 8 / 10.

OVERALL –

Mulan is a film with several great themes of generation and gender that it wants to present. These themes are overshadowed and dated, however by presenting these as a joke or brushing over them for other plot points or character moments. The plot feels slow but rushed as it goes, not finding a tonal balance or a core point to focus on. The film in general lacks focus, flitting from character to character instead of maintaining focus on one character. The tone also shifts frequently and jarringly, humor and drama overlapping, from the light tones of Eddie Murphy’s comedic delivery to the darkness of a burned and devastated village. The art direction starts strong, but transitions into a more cartoony and animated world, and the score and lyrical music, while good, do not really stick out in memory.

Given more of a focus, Mulan could have been an amazing film.

With the remake on an ever-shrinking horizon…

Can it improve on the original?

Image: Disney, Charactercentral.net

My OVERALL RATING for Disney’s Mulan is 80%.

Next time…

The identity of the musician was none other than:

PHIL COLLINS?!?!?!

Stay tuned!

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