THE STORY – Fearful that her ailing father will be drafted into the Chinese military, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) takes his spot — though, as a girl living under a patriarchal regime, she is technically unqualified to serve. She cleverly impersonates a man and goes off to train with fellow recruits. Accompanied by her dragon, Mushu (Eddie Murphy), she uses her smarts to help ward off a Hun invasion, falling in love with a dashing captain along the way.
THE CAST – Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer, June Foray, James Hong, Pat Morita & George Takei
THE TEAM – Barry Cook, Tony Bancroft (Directors), Rita Hsiao, Philip LaZebnik, Chris Sanders, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer & Raymond Singer (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 87 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
Disney’s “Mulan” was one of the first movies I ever saw at the movie theatre and I’ve seen it countless times since then, from watching it on VHS as a little girl or with friends in my freshman year dorm room at college. But when I sat down to watch it with a critic’s eye, I was surprised to discover that this film holds up remarkably well. Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, “Mulan” was the ninth film of the Disney Renaissance period with “Hercules” and “Tarzan” released on either side of it. It’s one of the strongest and most unique of the period, partially for having one of the best cast of characters of any animated film from Mulan’s sidekick Mushu to her hilarious Grandma.
“Mulan” is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a female warrior who disguised herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army. The Disney version veers far from the original legend, including a romance subplot with army captain Li Shang (BD Wong) and a subplot with a small dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy) trying to prove himself to the ancestors by helping Mulan (Ming-Na Wen). It also features one of the most chilling villains to ever appear in a Disney film: Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), the leader of the Huns.
A large part of Mulan’s lasting legacy in pop culture has been the beautiful music in the film. Jerry Goldsmith was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Original Score for his haunting, emotional score. It stands out amongst the more upbeat scores from animated films for its elegance and darkness. But the songs of “Mulan” are truly the best that Disney has to offer, from the now-classic ballad “Reflection” (sung by Broadway legend Lea Salonga) to the punchy “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (there’s never been a better song to work out to). But less well-remembered songs like “Honor to Us All” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For” are also excellent, proving that you don’t have to have a wealth of songs if the ones you do have are used impeccably.
“Mulan” was the first Disney “princess” film to not focus on romance. Mulan does have a budding relationship with Shang, but it’s built out of friendship and trust between two soldiers. Her focus is on bringing honor to her family and saving her father. A lot of the film centers around the exploration of identity and finding one’s place while working around familial and societal expectations. It also highlights Mulan’s struggle to be taken seriously, when dressed as a woman. The feminist message of the film still rings true today, twenty-two years after its release, and it’s easy to see that Mulan paved the way for Disney characters like Merida (“Brave”) and Moana (“Moana“).
The animation in “Mulan” is mostly hand-drawn, as was still typical during the Disney Renaissance era. The animators were inspired by Chinese paintings and use of watercolors and the animation in the film stands out amongst Disney films, more angular and less vibrantly colored. The costume design for this film is iconic with lots of army uniforms and complicated dresses. One of the best visual motifs in the film is of Mulan seeing her own reflection — in mirrors, water, a sword, a helmet — harkening back to the pivotal song.
The film’s focus on bringing honor to one’s family, the cherry blossom trees, and the inclusion of the ancestors seem to be attempts made by the storytellers to reflect the culture of the Chinese myth it is based on. Of course, it is a film made largely by non-Chinese people but it is surprisingly respectful for a film of the 1990s. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming live-action version is able to weave more of the original myth into the story.
What sets “Mulan” apart is that it is both one of the funniest and one of the darkest Disney films. It doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war or the injustices women faced at the time and there are sequences that are downright frightening. However, there are also delightful one-liners and humorous sequences like Mulan’s over-exaggerated attempt to act like a man when she first arrives at camp. “Mulan” is a beautiful film that is well-worth revisiting as an adult or, if you have kids yourself, introducing to a new generation.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A fantastic film with well-formed characters, a tight plot, a great set of songs, and a beautiful message.
THE BAD – None
THE OSCARS – Best Original Score (Nominated)