Cinematic Flashback: Mulan (1998) Review
I’ve heard a great deal about you, Fa Mulan. You Stole your father’s armor, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese Army, destroyed my palace, and….. you have saved us all as Jason’s Movie Blog travels back to the ancient china in this “cinematic flashback” of Disney’s 1998 film Mulan.
“This time, the princess saves the prince”
Director: Tony Bancroft and Barry
Writer: Rita Hsiao, Philip LaZebnik, Chris Sanders, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer
Starring: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer James Hong, George Takei
Run Time: 87 Minutes
Release Date: June 19th, 1998
Fa Mulan is a girl, the only child of her honored family. When the Huns invade China, one man from every family is called to arms. Mulan’s father, who has an old wound and cannot walk properly, decides to fight for his country and the honor of his family though it is clear that he will not survive an enemy encounter. Mulan, who just got rejected by the matchmaker because she had set her on fire, decides to prove that she is worth something and steals away to fit her father’s place in the Chinese army. She prays to her family’s ancestors for protection and luck before leaving as a man in her father’s armor with her family’s horse. The ancestors awake and decide to send Mushu, a little dishonored dragon to aid Mulan in her quest. Weeks later, Mulan and the other troopers have survived the training camp and are on the way north to stop the Huns. After being spotted and pursued by the enemies, an impasse situation in the mountains forces Mulan to come up with an idea. But then, her real gender will no longer be a secret. She decides to risk everything in order to save China.
Back in 1998, I remember seeing all the trailers and promos for Disney’s latest animated film titled Mulan. While I’ve always been a big fan of Disney and all of their properties that had released (still am), I didn’t see the movie in theaters. Can’t remember why as I remember going to see 1997’s Hercules (their last animated film) the previous year. In truth, I can recall that didn’t actually sat down and watched until a few years had passed since its release…. sometime during the early 2000s period. At first glance, I didn’t much of the film. Yes, it was still a Disney movie and was better than most animated feature being released at the time, but something about just didn’t instantly click with me. Maybe because I was a bit snobbish when it comes to Disney movies, especially since I love the earlier entries in the Disney Renaissance era (i.e. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) versus the latter half. However, maybe five years after its release (maybe a little bit more), I decided to revisit Mulan when I think Disney released the movie on their Blu-Ray home video releases. And I do have to say that enjoyed and appreciated Mulan better than what I original saw (i.e. my opinion). After that, I saw Mulan in a better light…and, with the release of the upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, I decided to do a cinematic flashback for 1998’s Mulan.
Based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, the movie is directed by Barry Cook and Tom Bancroft, who had previously worked on several Disney animated film during the Renaissance Era of their studio’s release and in various capacities (i.e. animators and effects animators). Thus, both Cook and Bancroft make their directorial film debut with Mulan and both certainly do a great job in this aspect. Taking cues from the recent past Disney animated features like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas, Mulan takes the departure of the studio carousel of European topography of storytelling landscapes and sets the story in Ancient China and adding plenty of flavoring and authenticity in Asian influences / culture. Plus, let’s not forget the main component in the movie was in the character of Mulan, who is torn between her family’s duties and traditions of her culture and between doing what she believes is right; going off to join army and to defend her family’s honor and protect her nation. This showcases how female protagonist isn’t just a “damsel in distress” stereotype, but also shows how a woman can fight and prove her strength to all. Of course, this speaks volumes to the narrative and to future Disney princesses (i.e. Tiana, Ana, Moana, etc.).
Animation-wise, the movie is dazzling and definitely benefits from being handled by Disney’s artisans and animators. I do have to say that the entire mountain scene in the movie is truly the highlight of the feature as well as a few crowd shots during the end. It really just goes to show you how much the animators on the film utilized latest style of animation and technology for its time of its release. Of course, like any Disney films released during this time period, Mulan does feature the company’s signature songs, with plenty reflecting the mood and themes of the feature’s story, including the duality of Mulan’s plight in “Reflections” to the manly bravado making soldiers out of men in “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”. The only downfall about these songs is that there is only four of them in the film; quite a bit short compared to other releases by Disney.
As mentioned, there were a few gripes that I had with the movie, but mostly were just minor ones. First off, I felt that the movie wasn’t just up to par with some of the earlier release of the Disney Renaissance era projects. Again, I really just in love with those movies better than some of the latter half releases. So, what’s presented in Mulan (story, characters, etc.) is relatively good and better than most, but I just feel that it’s a bit of a subpar compared to some of the earlier animated features of Renaissance era. A perfect are the songs in the movie, which I mentioned above I like, but don’t quite hit the same resounding effect that something like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid were able to achieve. Perhaps that was because both Ron Clements and John Musker did not direct Mulan (having previous done Hercules the following year. Or maybe because famous Disney collaborator composer Alan Menken wasn’t involved on this project. Additionally, the fairy tale-esque elements and nuances of which Disney animated movies encapsulate and embodied were slightly muted. A story of Chinese’s soldiers stopping an invading army does seem to lack the magical charm of something like a young Greek boy searching for his birthright (Hercules) or a young mermaid looking to be part of the human world (The Littler Mermaid) and so on and so forth. Again, those are some of the minor complaints that I had with the movie.
The voice talents in Mulan are definitely spot on and ultimately deliver arousing and colorful cast of characters to the tale. Actress Ming-Na Wen is great as Fa Mulan and certainly has the right amount of spirited willfulness and warmth to her character as well as sympathy and vulnerability at the same time. She was terrific in the role! Similarly, actor BD Wong presents a concrete vocal performance in the character of Captain Li Shang, which gives him the manly courage and bravado for the role. Likewise, actor Miguel Ferrer is great as the movie’s antagonist; bringing a sense of ruthlessness and bold intimidation in his performance of Shan Yu. However, perhaps the standout / memorable character in the entire film would definitely have to be the character of Mushu, a dragon who is sent to aid / protect Mulan on her quest, who is voiced by comedian actor Eddie Murphy. Murphy simply nails every line in the movie with his comedic voice and charm and brings the film some laughter whenever called upon. The rest of the cast from Harvey Fierstein, to Gedde Wanatabe, to Jerry Tondo, to James Hong, and Pat Mortia give solid and respectable voice acting roles in the feature; lending their theatrical weight to the project in various capacities….be it humor-based or resonating dialogue.
The legacy of Mulan has certainly been one that great importance; marking one of the first times that the “House of Mouse” would take one of their animated feature films and focus on a tale of Asian background. Given its success, Disney created a sequel to the 1998 film, with the direct-to-video release of Mulan II a few years later. However, unlike its predecessor, Mulan II, which dealt with strong themes of arranged marriages, loyalty, trust, relationships, and making choices, the film was received poorly amongst critics and viewers alike. Naturally, this also brings back around to talking about the upcoming 2020 live-action release of Mulan, which follows in the veins Disney’s recent trend of translating their beloved animated classics into live-action endeavors. It will be curious to see where the movie will go and what was changed / improved in the translation. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing it.
In the end, Mulan is still a triumph and true treasure of what Disney embraced during its release of the acclaimed Disney Renaissance era of productions; acting as the penultimate entry before the decade long period came to an end. With its colorful animation (as well as cutting edge software at the time), colorful characters, solid voice talents, beautiful soundtrack / memorable songs, and meaningful story, Mulan has certainly earned the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the studio’s upper echelon animated features; proving that anyone can make a difference….no matter if its man or woman …and to always be true to oneself.
Cinematic Flashback Score: 4.3 Out of 5
FUN FACT: Mulan is the second Disney Princess to have both parents alive and present during the entire length of the feature. The first being Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1959), and the third being Rapunzel in Tangled (2010), and Merida being the fourth in Brave (2012), with the fifth being Moana (2016).