“Wait, stop!” I hear you say, “You’ve already given us a review of this film”. Don’t worry, my ever present and gentle readers, I have not forgotten, for this is not another review of the Vicky Zhao vehicle, but rather a little look at the Disney version of this classic Chinese story. And just to show all my cards, I have to tell you all that actually I am not a huge fan of Disney Animated films per se. I often find them overlong, cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and spoiled by songs either too unmemorable or too bloody catchy. I’ll be even more controversial and say the ones I actually like the least are those of the so-called Disney Renaissance, between 1989 and 1999, a decade started by the “Little Mermaid” and finished up by “Tarzan”. I don’t deny the films are technically impressive, and probably historically important as they represent the last hurrah of the traditional animation methods (although computers were used to assist), before the fully CGI “Toy Story” would change everything. On the other hand, BFF has told me a couple of times that this is her favourite telling of the story of Hua Mulan. And sometimes, that is good enough for me to at least give something a look.
“Mulan” follows the life of Fa Mulan (voiced by Ming-na Wen), daughter of a famous but now aged and crippled warrior, who despite her best intentions to be a good and honourable Daughter, simply can’t seem to pull it off. When the Hun army, led by the villainous Shan-yu (Miguel Ferrer) invades China, the Emperor conscripts an army by forcing each family to supply one male to his forces. As Mulan is an only Daughter, he father is forced to go. Of course, Mulan takes his place, dressing as a Man, even though this is strictly forbidden upon punishment of Death. The Families’ Ancestors have other ideas, and send along the Guardian Dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy) to assist Mulan in returning home safely (with the additional assistance of a ‘Lucky Cricket’). Initially somewhat misguided about quite how to masquerade as a man, Mulan eventually gains the trust of her fellow soldiers, and she rather complicatedly falls for the commanding officer Li Shang (BD Wong). Can Mulan use her wits and skills to return home safely to her family, maybe win the heart of Li Shang, and maybe even help win the war? It’s a Disney film, isn’t that spoiler enough?
My first impression was actually simply how short the film felt. After a quite impressive and amusing opening sequence with a Matchmaker, things move very quickly into Mulan’s military double life. The whole film moves at a really brisk pace, with no real draggy moments, indeed, even the songs of which I was somewhat afeard are actually rather brief. The animation is beautiful giving an authentic Han Dynasty feel without traipsing over too many easy clichés (apart from the proto CGI Chinese lanterns in the final battle, which just look odd). The characters look suitably Asian, and the animal characters are full of life, whether it be Mulan’s Horse, the lithe Mushu or the scene-stealing little Cricket/
The Voice cast are perfectly fine, with Ming-na managing to play the heroine rather well, giving her a sense of youth and innocence with a hardness born out of a will to succeed. I guess the strangest cast choice (other than Miguel Ferrer, who can do menacing, but is about as Asian as me), is that of Eddie Murphy as the little Dragon Mushu. Putting it into some context, Disney were obviously going for the Robin Williams Genie vibe from “Aladdin”. Murphy’s career was actually on the slide at this point, but to be fair, he is hugely entertaining, although some of a younger, newer audience are going to realise that this is the shtick he will use a lot over the next 15 years as Donkey in the “Shrek” series.
There is fun to be had by James Hong’s Chi-fu (Hong is not a household name, but you will have seen him as pretty much any middle aged Chinese character in just about every US TV show in the last 20-30 years). But fun aside, this is where my problems with the film start somewhat. Chi-fu is a bit of an a***hole, but he is never more than an annoyance, certainly not a secondary villain. The real bad guy, Shan-yu, certainly goes through the motions of evil, but the whole film is oddly bloodless. There are deaths, but they are all off-screen, or suggested, and even in the climactic moment of War, a great many characters miraculously survive. There’s a real lack of peril and danger involved. Worse still is the fact that the whole love-story angle cannot be explored… obviously Mulan and Li Shang grow feeling for each other, but the complications of a homosexual (albeit a false one) relationship simply cannot be explored in the film, being as it is basically a kid’s movie. There is therefore a strange lack of romantic tension here.
However, the film is fortunate enough to work past this, but having the real emotional core actually being the relationship between Mulan and her Father. Despite some of his obvious disappointments, there is a real bond between Father and Daughter here. It is a different dynamic at play than many similar films, and I think it is stronger for this. It also interesting that Mulan is not a classic Disney Princess, who actually are often quite selfish in their motives, this Mulan is a selfless character, who sacrifices herself on many levels for ideas such as duty to ones country and to her family.
I really enjoyed the film, despite my initial misgivings. Tonally it is quite an unusual film for a Disney animation of this period, because of the way it has to work around the limitations of what it can show and explore within the confines of its specific genre. In Mulan you have a character that can really be admired, and she is supported by a huge amount of fun. Would I have enjoyed something a little more adult, something a little darker? Yes, of course, but I accept the dynamics of what is attempted here, and enjoyed myself a great deal. I’ll give this a recommended.