Munir: Hello and welcome back to our A Decade Of feature, where we are currently reviewing the Disney Renaissance. Today, we take a look at this period’s penultimate film, Mulan. Released in the summer of 1998, Mulan is based on a popular Chinese legend, and it follows the path of Aladdin and Pocahontas in telling a story from a different culture. Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, Mulan tells the story of a young woman who doesn’t fit in with her society and what is expected of her. When her father is summoned to fight a Hun invasion, Mulan supplants his identity and goes to war. On the outset, the film doesn’t deviate from the “renaissance” formula. You have a plucky and outcast young heroine, funny sidekicks, some songs, an evil villain, and a love interest. However, Mulan succeeds within this formula because the lead characters are richly realized. Mulan may not be a “lady” according to her society, but she’s selfless and brave and proves herself in a male-dominated world. The film is also epic with many grandiose sequences and beautiful animation. I consider Mulan one of my personal favorites and a very strong film. What do you think of the film, Virginia?
Virginia: Mulan is a great film, and in some regards I find it to be underrated. As you mentioned, the visuals are absolutely gorgeous. I also think Mulan is one of Disney’s best-developed characters and embodies what a true hero is more than many. Ming-Na Wen turns in an inspired performance as our determined heroine, and B.D. Wong is excellent and quite understated as Li Shang. What do you think of the film’s music?
Munir: Before I answer your question, I agree that both lead actors are great in their respective characters. Also, this was the second film that tried to cast actors that reflected the characters’ culture after Pocahontas. However, not all the actors were of Chinese descent. Pat Morita, who voiced the Emperor, was in fact from Japanese descent. Similarly, neither Eddie Murphy nor June Foray (Mushu and Grandma Fa respectively) had any Chinese blood or ancestry. That doesn’t diminish enjoyment of the film, but ever since, Disney has been more rigorous with their diversity casting, as you can see in The Princess and the Frog, Big Hero 6 and Moana. Returning to your question, I think Jerry Goldsmith’s score is absolutely beautiful. It mixes Asian sounds with epic music, and the result is breathtaking. The songs, written by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel (the latter returning from Hercules), are hit and miss. I like “Reflection” a lot because it’s an “I Want” song, but it’s different from the other ones, which are characterized by their grand statements. “Reflection,” on the other hand, is melancholic and could be seen as a lament. I like that very much. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is wonderful as well. It’s epic, and I like how the lyrics play on what it means “to be a man” in the context of a woman being there. “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is funny and silly, but what I remember the most is the abrupt change in tone when it ends, and they face the Hun’s massacre. The only song I really don’t like is “True to Your Heart,” and it’s a weak link in the whole film.
V: “True to Your Heart” doesn’t bother me that much, as it’s at the very end and I love Stevie Wonder, but I do see your point. Perhaps they should have moved it until the credits rather than including it in the actual story. “Reflection” is definitely my favorite song in the movie for the reasons you’ve mentioned. It’s so beautiful, and I love Lea Salonga as Mulan’s singing voice. It also includes some beautiful and iconic imagery, such as Mulan’s split reflection in the shrine, part made-up and part plain. This leads to another of my favorite scenes with Mulan and her father Fa Zhou, who compares her to a late-blooming flower. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is one of the most popular and quoted Disney songs, and for good reason. This song has clever lyrics and a great tune, but the way it informs its characters and develops Mulan’s arc is what makes it really special. This is a song that gives us several characters’ perspectives on a situation or idea, and I love songs like that. “A Girl Worth Fighting For” and “Honor to Us All” are the most comedic songs, and weaker than “Reflection” or “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” but I do like them. I actually like the sharp tonal shift from “A Girl Worth Fighting For” to the discovery of the decimated village. It’s very effective and totally shocks and disheartens the viewer, just as it does Mulan, Shang, and the other soldiers.
M: I completely forgot about “Honor to Us All”! And I really like it, and I think it has a light melody. However, the lyrics are telling regarding how this society works and how male-centric it is. I don’t hate “True To Your Heart,” but, as you said, I wish it was relegated to the end credits and not the end of the film. In fact, I think the ending is a little bit anti-climatic. I like how Shang and Mulan end their relationship not on a big romantic kiss but in a more realistic way of having a date. But, the moment Mushu says “hit in Cri-Kee,” and the whole Ancestor party feels weak to me. It’s not a big nuisance, but for a film that has lots of epic sequences, the ending felt too abrupt. I also like the tonal shift after the “A Girl Worth Fighting For” sequence. These are amateur soldiers that do not know the horrors of war, and it’s a big shock when they see it (as it should be). What do you think of the supporting characters? I like Mushu as a sidekick; he’s funny and “street-wise” smart. I don’t care too much about Cri-Kee, but I’m not bothered by him either. I absolutely love Chien-Po, Yao, and Ling. They start out as these bone-headed assholes, but they are the first to let go of their prejudices and accept Mulan for who she is. Shan-Yu has an imposing presence, but aside from that, there’s not much going for him. Still, I think he serves the film well. I also like Fa Zhou, Fa Li, and Grandma Fa. They seem to be very supportive of Mulan, even when she doesn’t fit in their society, and that totally justifies Mulan’s decision of going to the army in place of her father. It’s also worth noting that Mulan is one of the few Disney characters to have both parents alive.
V: I agree totally that the ending and Shan Yu are two weak points in the film. Shan Yu is intimidating, and I like that he never refers to Mulan’s gender or says anything sexist. That would be ridiculously distracting and come off as forced political agendas at play. He merely sees “the soldier from the mountain” as a threat, and understandably (even if wrongly) wants revenge. I also agree with you about the ending Mulan and Shang get as a couple. They’re just getting to know each other without any pretenses, and a fairy tale “happily ever after” with a wedding and babies would be misplaced. Chien-Po, Yao, and Ling are hilarious, and I like how their friendships with Mulan evolve throughout the film. Even when she is revealed as a woman, they try to protect her from punishment, despite their own shock and confusion. By the way, the scene where Chi-Fu and Shang find out about Mulan’s real identity is very effective. Shang’s choice is honorable and believable. Mulan’s family are good characters as well, with father Fa Zhou being a great one. His and Mulan’s relationship and the lengths to which she’ll go to save his life are tremendous. There’s something magical about a character who will do anything for someone they love. In this case, it’s from a child for their parent rather than between lovers. This is a nice change of pace for Disney and reminds me of Belle offering to take Maurice’s place in Beauty and the Beast. As for the sidekicks, honestly, there are too many. Everybody in this film has a sidekick. Even Mushu, a sidekick, has Cri-Kee as his own sidekick. As we said, I like Mulan’s three army friends. I also like Mushu and his arc. However, I don’t care for Cri-Kee or Shan Yu’s hawk. Those characters don’t really serve any narrative purpose and likely exist to sell toys. I do like George Takei as Mulan’s primary ancestor, and the other ancestors are fun too.
M: Agreed on the too many sidekicks argument. But, the film mostly pulls it off fine. It’s also funny that when Disney released Frozen, everyone said how groundbreaking it was because Kristoff told Anna that she couldn’t marry someone she just met. Mulan did the same thing first without being on the nose about it. One of my favorite scenes is when Mulan returns to warn Shang and the rest about the Huns. Shang asks her why he should believe it, and Mulan answers, “Why else would I come back? You said you’d trust Ping. Why is Mulan any different?” and he just goes away as he is literally left speechless. I like how Mulan calls him out for his sexism, and then he changes his ways. I also love that to infiltrate the palace, they have to dress as women and do the reverse of what Mulan did earlier. I also love the last phrase the Emperor tells Shang: “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all… You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty!” I love that. And of course, the scene where he and everyone bows to Mulan is a highlight for me. It always gives me chills. The score is just amazing in that scene.
V: I meant to say earlier that you’re exactly right about Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score for the film. The music swells at all the right moments, and the one you just indicated, “And, you have saved us all,” is one of my favorites. I love how the Emperor lists Mulan’s crimes leading up to it as well. Another great example is when Mulan cuts her hair, and when Chifu and the army arrive to recruit men from each family. As with The Lion King, I wish there was more interplay between the score and the songs, but the music is excellent nonetheless. Back to your point about Mulan, Shang, and sexism, I totally agree. This film presents a more realistic relationship where both people learn from each other, but it’s subtle and intelligent, very much unlike Frozen. Shang has a fantastic arc in the film; just as good as Mulan’s, in my opinion. He has to step outside his father’s shadow, first when he is promoted and then when his father dies. He learns what it really means to be a man, and his relationship with Ping/Mulan as both camaraderie, and eventually romantic desire, is very well developed. I hate how people try and pass this film off as some kind of “girl power” propaganda when it’s so much more complex than that and better for it.
M: Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score is a thing of beauty and very underrated because people don’t mention it enough. Overall, I think Mulan is a powerful film. It has some minor issues, like the ending and too many sidekicks. However, the main characters are very well developed, and the story is epic and compelling in equal measure. Mulan is a wonderful protagonist (no wonder she’s the only non-princess to be a Disney Princess), and the film has a lot of thrilling sequences backed by breathtaking animation. As I said, it’s one of my favorite Disney films, and it has remained at the top of my list ever since it was released. To finish, what’s your opinion on the upcoming remake? So far, I like that it’s taking a different approach, and I hope it is its own thing instead of a shot-for-shot remake like The Lion King.
V: I’m inclined to agree with you. I adore the animated Mulan, and I applaud the makers of the remake for at least trying to do something new. I wish more of these remakes would take that approach; it seems to get the best results, and you get a unique experience.
M: What do you think of Mulan? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to return to Geeks + Gamers as we review the last film of the Disney Renaissance, Tarzan!
Mulan presents one of Disney's most well-developed characters, and some gorgeous music and imagery. The film's villain and some side characters are less than perfect, but a stellar group of main characters and a compelling story more than make up for these faults.