Mulan (1998)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in No Boys Allowed | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Spitting, butt-slapping, skinny dipping, grunting, punching, fighting, cross-dressing, and other prototypical “manly” behaviors.

Sadly, Disney’s unprecedented string of hits that began with The Little Mermaid and ended with The Lion King came to an end in the mid-90s, making way for a phase of mostly paltry releases dealing with “historical” figures. Though not as strong in the music category as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Hercules, Mulan more than makes up for it with an engaging story of surprising depth. It introduces a heroine that doesn’t just ask for independence and equality (like Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle), she demands it.

Based on a centuries-old legend from Chinese folklore, Mulan begins on the Great Wall of China, as the dark and ominous Huns, led by falcon-toting badass Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) orchestrate an attack. When the elderly emperor (Pat Morita) hears of this, he insists everyone go to battle as “one man may be the difference between victory and defeat.” If that isn’t a prime example of foreshadowing, then I don’t know what is. Meanwhile, in a distant village, teenage Mulan (Ming-Na) is preparing to cheat for an exam. This type of exam is not for school, but at the home of the Matchmaker (Miriam Margolyes). While Mulan’s father (Soon-Tek Oh) prays that she’s granted a husband, womenfolk bathe her in “Instant Bride” formula and serenade her with the song Honor to Us All singing “Men want girls with good taste/calm, obedient, who work fast-paced/with good breeding and a tiny waist.” Before it turns into a complete disaster, the Matchmaker examines Mulan’s disposition, appearance, and tea-pouring ability. Mulan, it appears, will shame her family as she’s not “the perfect bride.”

By order of the emperor later that day, Mulan hears that one male from each family must fight. Though an honored solider, Mulan’s father is disabled from previous battles, so she steals his armor and intends to fight in his place disguised as a man. With the help of a feisty dragon (Eddie Murphy) and lucky cricket, Mulan must win over Captain Shang (B.D. Wong) as a courageous warrior named Ping.

As Mimi Nguyen noted in her mulan2analysis of the film, Mulan is a refreshing egalitarian character from a society that sends girls through the seen-not-heard schooling. She is vocal, rebellious, impulsive, and, most of all, strong. According to the emperor’s decree, everyone must do his/her part. While the men bear arms, the women will bear children (hopefully boys). But Mulan confidently disobeys the social construct, despite the fact that going to battle is far more dangerous and constitutes treason. Even before battle, however, Mulan finds that the training to get there may break her, as she’s constantly reminded how weak, undisciplined, meek, and emasculated she is.

“You know how it is when you get those manly urges and you just gotta kill something, fix things, cook outdoors,” Ping says to prove her masculinity. But with her determination never swayed, Ping wins the respect of her male cohorts such as the badger-like Yao (Harvey Fierstein), goofy Ling (Gedde Watanabe), and harmless giant Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo).

I was entirely won over and impressed with the film’s message, until some disturbing elements snuck up at the end. After her heroics and the revelation that she is, in fact, a woman, the emperor fires his snotty counsel (James Hong) who says, “She’s a woman, she’ll never be worth anything.” In turn, he offers her the man’s prestigious government position, which would make her the only woman in power. She has proved her worth, saved an empire, received the crest of the emperor, and won the sword of the enemy. Yet, when she returns home, the acclaim means little to her mother and grandmother, who voice their disappointment that she has yet to get a man.

I was also struck by the respectable mulan3treatment of the culture and race. It may make light of some superstitions here and there (lucky cricket), and some of the characters have slight Caucasian features (like those from American Gothic), but it’s far better than Pocahontas (did anyone else cringe when they saw Grandmother Willow?). Some could submit that the treatment is boiled down and stereotypical – what with the paper-thin huts, sweeping roofs, bamboo, pandas, shrines, and pink-blossomed trees – but it could be far worse. And though they used some Americans for voices (including Donny Osmond), a vast majority are famous character actors (Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi, Sixteen Candles’ Donger, Big Trouble in Little China’s David Lopan, etc.).

The songs in the film, by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, are nothing special with Reflection, I’ll Make a Man Out of You, and Honor to Us All representing the catchiest. There’s also True to Your Heart and A Girl Worth Fighting For, with the suggestive line, “You can guess what we miss the most since we went off to war.” Jerry Goldsmith, who did the score for Star Trek, Chinatown, and The Omen, received his last Oscar nomination here. The animation is simpler than, say, Beauty and the Beast, but effective. I’m reminded of one scene where it reverts to Chinese painting style consisting of thick, swooping brush strokes with watercolors on crude parchment. Its most complicated scene, on the other hand, called for a new computer animation technique, which they suitably dubbed Atilla. The scene involves hundreds of Huns charging down a snowy mountain pass toward Mulan’s small Chinese battalion. Like the film itself, the result is quite “cool.”

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