The flower that blooms in diversity is the most beautiful of all...
In the middle of the Disney Renaissance, the studio was experiencing a bit of a slump. Their last three films Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules hadn’t done as well as they’d hoped and were met with mixed reviews from critics so their next project would have to help them get out of that. A group of artists were sent to China to get artistic inspiration and they decided to base their next project on the Ancient Chinese ballad of the heroine Hua Mulan. It was also hoped that this film would help rebuild bridges with China after they had been offended by the Disney-funded film Kundun. Shall we begin?
Fa Mulan is a young girl living in Ancient China with her family (uniquely Mulan is one of the only Disney heroines to have both parents alive and well, with her grandmother as an added bonus). On the day our story follows her, she is to meet with the Matchmaker who will find her a husband. Mulan sadly messes up rather embarrassingly at it and is publicly humiliated. Then along comes the news that the Huns have invaded China and the Emperor has ordered conscription – one man from every family must serve in the army. Mulan’s father is a celebrated war hero but is now old and will surely die if he goes. Mulan steals his armour, cuts her hair and takes his conscription notice to the training camp claiming to be his son Fa Ping. The family’s ancestors send a demoted guardian Mushu to help her out in her ruse. Mulan of course finds the training very hard but she works at it, which comes in useful when the entire army is called to the frontlines.
I want to talk about the characterisations here first; Mulan is definitely one of the most compelling Disney characters ever written and she is very relatable, for both men and women even for people not living in Ancient China. She wants so badly to do things right and she tries hard but often comes up short. The moment after she has frelled it up in front of the Matchmaker and returns home, unable to look her father in the face is heartbreaking to watch. I’ve talked a bit about the likes of Ariel and Esmerelda being Disney feminists but I think Mulan probably trumps them all. It’s handled in a very good way and without positive discrimination that so many of these “girl power” plots often forget (*cough* GI Jane). Mulan has to work hard and she uses her quick thinking to her advantage a lot of the time. To those who complain that in order to succeed “she had to become a man” don’t forget that in the final few scenes of the film, she saves China while wearing a dress. She did not fully succeed until she was revealed to be a woman. Ming-Na whom we all love does a brilliant job voicing her and I will always call Mulan her best role. It is actually a bit surprising to hear that most of the voice cast were Asian-American actors (apart from Eddie Murphy and Miguel Ferrer) which is something extra you wouldn’t expect Disney to put the effort into.
The animation for this film is quite different from the likes of Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty which were all elaborate and artistic (but still brilliant of course). This goes for a more simplified design done in watercolour, in the style of traditional Chinese paintings. The opening sequence with the ink on the rice paper creating the painting is beautiful to look at as well as the design of the Imperial City at the end. There is some CGI used as well and you can see that they have perfected it since Hunchback. The most obvious CGI shot is the big sweeping one of the thousands of Huns racing across the mountains which looks pretty epic and therefore passes the test. CGI was used for the crowd in the Imperial City though the big part where the entire crowd bows is actually a panoramic film of real people bowing that was edited into the animation.
Now onto this film’s strongest quality – the music. Both the songs and the score for this film are nothing short of epic and impressive. Mulan’s signature song “Reflection” is right up there with “God Help The Outcasts” as one of the most beautifully written songs in the Disney Animated Canon. Mulan sings about how she looks in the mirror and sees herself performing, playing a role which she is not good at. She wants so much for her reflection to show who she is inside. It was originally a lot longer but had to be cut down. Listen to the longer version (by Lea Salonga) and you will be impressed. The other big show stopping number, “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” is incredibly catchy and I dare you to resist not singing along whenever it plays. Bonus points for all that irony in it, especially the line “did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?”. The song “Honour To Us All” is also nice to listen to, and Lea Salonga’s little verse in it is just sweet to the ears. For the non-lyrical parts, the opening little piece with the all the Chinese instruments is light and another beautiful piece of music to listen to, going so well with the artistic sequence to make for one of the more splendid Disney opening sequences. The piece “Transformation” is definitely one of the most epic things to have ever been recorded for a Disney soundtrack.
I mentioned “Transformation” and the scene that goes along with it is as epic as the music. From Mulan just sitting in the rain watching the silhouettes of her parents crying to her actually going through disguising herself , it’s just a great achievement in animation. The big battle scene on the mountain is pretty epic as well including the parts with the cannons and the avalanche. I mentioned “Reflection” above and the shot of Mulan looking around at the graves of her ancestors, her face reflected in all of them is a pretty striking one.
Then of course we have big points to Disney for giving us some big mood whiplash going from the comedic number “A Girl Worth Fighting For” to the scene of an entire village destroyed. The doll, just the doll...and the helmet too. For some more light hearted scenes there’s the brilliant one where Mulan goes skinny-dipping in the lake and the other guys decide to join her. We have three men in a lake with a naked woman in a Disney film people, and of course the lovely line “I never want to see a naked man again”, *cue a dozen other naked men sprinting into the lake. And of course Mushu’s “my eyes can see straight through your armour”, *bitch slap from Mulan.
And that will be it for all my exploits relating to Asian culture. Fun fact: me, my brother and my mother all went on the radio reviewing this film back when it came out. Of course it was completely disastrous as I was an over-excited seven-year-old at the time and couldn’t understand that we were being listened to by millions of people across the country. Thankfully these days people won’t recognise my voice. Apparently Disney plan to make a live-action adaptation of this, which I am all for since I see them going for something in the style of Curse of the Golden Flower and House of Flying Daggers. Three guesses who’s up for the role of Mulan. Until next time, Bobby-verse and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and I’ll make movie people out of you.