by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, March 10, 2012


My continuing foray into Disney's fifty official Animated Classics. As always, don't hesitate to share your thoughts/memories/complaints in the comments section below. Links to previous entries have also been included below.

Title: Mulan (1998; based on the Chinese poem The Ballad Of Mulan)

The Plot: In 3rd century China, a peasant girl disguises herself as a man and joins the Imperial Army in her father's place.

The Songs: "Honor To Us All," "Reflection," "I'll Make A Man Out Of You," "A Girl Worth Fighting For," "True To Your Heart," "Reflection (End Title)"

A Little History: Disney's 36th Animated Classic originated as a direct-to-video short about a teenage girl who escapes oppression in her native land. Disney consultant Robert D. San Souci, however, convinced the filmmakers to adapt the 6th- century poem Ballad Of Mulan as a feature instead. The project was then handed over to Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida, where key members of the production staff were treated to a three-week excursion to China for research and inspiration. Co-directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook decided to shy away from the more detailed palette of The Lion King and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and opted for the "poetic simplicity" of Chinese paintings instead - empty space balanced by positive detail. Animators made use of newly-developed computer software for the film's major crowd sequences, including the movie's centerpiece Hun attack and climax in the Forbidden City; a variant of the multiplane camera (called Faux Plane) was also used to add depth to otherwise flat surfaces. Initial drafts of the script were discarded, in favor of a less "Disneyfied" approach to the material; as a result, Mulan became more heroic and less self-centered, and the love story was pushed aside. Actress/singer Lea Salonga originally auditioned for Mulan, but couldn't lower her voice enough to pass as a man; though Ming-Na Wen eventually won the part, Salonga still provides the character's singing voice. (Likewise, Donny Osmond provides the singing voice for Captain Shang during "I'll Make A Man Out Of You.") Irony alert: Actor B.D. Wong (Shang) made his debut on Broadway in M. Butterfly - as a character masquerading as a woman. Mulan is credited with jump-starting the career of Christina Aguilera, who sings the pop version of "Reflection" on the soundtrack; a sixth song ("Keep 'Em Guessing") by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel was jettisoned once Eddie Murphy joined the cast as Mushu the dragon. Disney executives had hoped to use the movie to bridge relations with the Chinese government, who felt that the studio's Dalai Lama-themed Kundun (1997) pushed too many political buttons. China ultimately agreed to distribute Mulan in limited capacity, but the film was a flop at the box office there. It still managed to gross $120 million in the U.S., and another $184 in other parts of the world.

How It Broke New Ground: Disney's first feature-length animated film produced at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida. It is also the first Disney Classic to star an Asian heroine, and the first of their titles to be released on DVD.

How It Holds Up Today: I'm half Chinese, so it's little wonder that I looked forward to the release of Mulan with bated breath. After all, the folks at the Mouse House had been known for mucking with other cultures before - who's to say they wouldn't do so again? For the most part, though, those fears were only partially realized: roughly half of the film's characters sound Asian at all (because only half of the film's cast is actually Asian), most are reduced to caricatures (Mulan's best pals are so diverse, they might as well be called Short Chubby Guy, Tall Skinny Guy and... Tall Chubby Guy), and whenever the movie builds up a dramatic head of steam, the screenplay squanders it with crass "comedy" bits aimed at every 10-year-old in the audience. (Even the single best song in the movie, "I'll Make A Man Out Of You," is built on a pun - Get it? Because she's not a man, she's a woman!) Saving graces include Jerry Goldsmith's majestic score (the best since The Lion King), a Hun-riddled ambush atop a snowy mountainside, and those subtly-textured watercolor backgrounds. Then there's Mulan herself, whose nobility and grace under pressure bucks all Disney tradition. Like the rest of the movie, though, she spends far too long pretending to be something she's not.

Grade: B-


There you have it, Disney fans – 36 down, only one more Renaissance title to go. Still need to play catch up? Click on the following for: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun And Fancy Free, Melody Time, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady And The Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred And One Dalmatians, The Sword In The Stone, The Jungle Book, The AristoCats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh, The Rescuers, The Fox And The Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down UnderBeauty And The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, PocahontasThe Hunchback Of Notre Dame, and Hercules. Please comment!

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