51 Days of Disney (Day 36): Mulan

Hercules took the Disney canon slightly East from it’s Western European roots, but 1998’s Mulan took the traditional old world setting and took it somewhere even older.

All is quiet on the Great Wall of China, until the Huns led by Shan Yu climb over it in order to attack the Empire. The Emperor (Pat Morita, also known as Mr. Miyagi) is notified and conscription notices are sent all over China by his advisor, Chi Fu (James Hong, Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner, Wayne’s World 2).

Fa Mulan (Ming-Na, but her singing voice was done by Lea Salonga who was also the singing voice for Jasmine in Aladdin) is a young woman who is about to meet the matchmaker, but just can’t quite do things the way she is supposed to. She’s late for getting prepared for the meeting, much to her mother and grandmother’s (June Foray, who is the original voice of Granny from the Looney Tunes) disappointment. Everything of course goes wrong in the matchmaker meeting (in typical Disney fashion) and she does not bring honor upon her family name. She wonders what her place in the world is as she can never seem to do anything right, her father, Fa Zhou, reassures her by saying that when the last blossom blooms “it will be the most beautiful of all.” This sentimental moment is broken by Chi Fu delivering the conscription notices, which Fa Zhou accepts with honor until Mulan tries to get him out of serving because of the injuries he suffered in the last war. Chi Fu is unamused and Fa Zhou declares that she has dishonored the family name.

In order to reclaim her family’s honor, and her own, Mulan disguises herself as a man, steals her fathers armor and sword, cuts off her hair, and joins the army. Her ancestors, led by a Fa played by the incredibly awesome George Takei, try to send the Great Stone Dragon to watch over her, but Mushu (Eddie Murphy), the gong ringer who was demoted to that post because he was not a good guardian and got another Fa beheaded, accidentally breaks the statue and decides to watch over Mulan to regain his honor with the other Ancestors. At the army camp, Mulan meets Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Ling, and Chien-Po and gets in to a scuffle that gets all of them in trouble with their commanding officer Li Shang and Chi Fu. We are then launched into one of the greatest training montages of ALL TIME.

Mulan, disguised as a soldier named Fa Ping, quickly becomes one of the top soldiers and through Mushu’s tampering, her battalion gets called to the front lines. While marching to meet the rest of the army, they stumble upon a village that has been destroyed by the Huns and find out that the main battalion led by Shang’s father have been wiped out. Shang mourns the death of his father and Mulan tries to console him, but they are attacked shortly afterwards due to Mushu accidentaly setting off one of the guns. Mulan saves the day, but is hit by an arrow in the process and her cover is blown while getting medical attention. She is dishonorably discharged, but sees that Shan Yu survived the battle and is heading to the Imperial City to kill the Emperor and it’s up to Mulan to save the Chinese Empire from destruction.

Mulan is one of the few films to be primarily animated at the then titled Disney-MGM Studios and the animation team created a program named Attila that would allow them to create the scene where the Huns attack Mulan’s battalion. It allowed the team to create the 2000 independently moving Huns that gave the scene so much tension and life. Along with that software, they also developed a variant program called Dynasty that created the 3000 people in the final scene in the Forbidden City. These programs used the Pixar developed RenderMan to make the computer created characters look in place with the traditionally animated characters. Faux Plane was a program developed to add depth to a 2D image, essentially allowing the background artists to paint one background and make it look like the background was made on multiple levels in the multiplane camera.

One thing that I did not start explicitly noticing until someone pointed it out to me is that Mulan actually has two different character designs. I’m not talking about different costumes, I’m talking about the fact that when she is Mulan, she looks very different from when she is Ping. They have completely different facial structures. Ping has a much more rugged and slightly squared off jaw while Mulan has a much more soft and round jawline. The squared off-ness of Ping’s features also apply to her eyebrows which become decidingly more angular. These changes to the design do not make Mulan look a man, they just make her look more ambiguously gendered.

The music was done by Jerry Goldsmith this time around and does a very good job combining a traditional orchestral score with some major Asian influences, but the score just feels like it is not quite as memorable as other Disney scores. The songs were done by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, and like the music, most of the songs are largely forgettable. I’m not saying that they’re bad, they’re just not as good as the music was earlier in the 90’s. That being said, “Reflection” does the job of setting up Mulan’s major theme for the movie very well and is a genuinely beautiful song and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is one of the best songs in the Disney canon. It is one of the songs on my immensely powerful “Pump-Up Playlist” and is a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Don’t Stop Believing” that if you start quoting it, chances are someone will join in with you.

Mulan is the last Disney Princess film until 2009’s Princess and the Frog and I have some serious problems as to this qualification. Mulan was not and does not become a princess at any point in the film. Shang is a captain in the military, and while they do get together at the end, this does not denote royalty. Mulan was essentially put in as a Disney Princess in some bizzarre Disney Affirmative Action campaign. There needs to be a princess for every girl to relate to in order to sell more merchandise, so she was placed into that particular canon to capture that particular market

I’m a little bitter about this because I really just wish that Disney could have worked something out with Amy Adams as so that Giselle from Enchanted could have been a full Disney Princess.

Just because I said I would, this is a Disney film where the heros intentionally kill the villain.

Mulan is a very good film that helped to push the animation field forward with it’s crowd work, but suffers very slightly from some mediocre music.

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