At the same time, the Disney people loooooove their story formulas – the messages about being true to yourself, the attempted hip humor, and the pop culture references like when they sang “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in The Lion King* – and don’t give them up easily.
The results, I feel, can hurt the films where such touches don’t really belong; 1997’s Hercules was sound and fury with little emotional core, because it was such a product of the formula. Disney can do far, far better.
It’s starting to do that. Mulan doesn’t avoid all the Disney clichés, and it can’t hold a candle to Disney’s most recent pinnacle of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. But so what? It’s satisfying, amd that puts it one step ahead of Hercules.
In a story based on a legend from China’s Middle Kingdom, the Huns cross the Great Wall and prepare to invade the Imperial City. The Chinese Emperor (voiced by Pat Morita of The Karate Kid) orders one man from each family to join the Imperial Army.
By this time, we’ve met Mulan (Ming Na Wen), a spunky late bloomer of a girl who doesn’t quite fit with the rest of her world. Her aging father, the only man in the family, agrees to join the army – but before he can leave, Mulan cuts her hair, steals his sword and armor and disguises herself as a young man to fight in his place, while the ghosts of her worried ancestors send tiny dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy) to keep tabs on her.
Mulan enters an army camp, and proves her resourcefulness both in training and when she single-handedly turns the tide of a harrowing battle against the Huns. When her secret is discovered, her life is spared but the troops abandon her. When she learns the Huns are still making their way to the Imperial City, Mulan must alert the army and the Emperor – the very people who won’t listen to her because she’s “just” a female.
Of course there’s a happy ending, a love interest and some songs – though, interestingly, the serious second half is completely devoid of songs, and is carried by Jerry Goldsmith’s emotional, rousing score. In a smart move, the very last song is cut off without finishing, as the mood abruptly changes from upbeat to somber.
Mulan doesn’t really feel like a musical, anyway; and hey, not all animated films should be musicals and not all musicals should be animated. (For a positive example, Beauty was almost audaciously a musical, with the confidence of writer-producer Howard Ashman backing it up, and that had a lot to do with that film’s artistic success.) In this film, songs don’t quite seem to fit.
Mulan is more intense than most Disney animated films; the battle is incredibly cinematic, with hundreds of Huns first riding down a steep slope and then fleeing in horror from an avalanche. The film even has the audacity to show a body-strewn battlefield, and the Hun leader (Miguel Ferrer) is a brutal villain with very little humor. This is very strong stuff for a G-rated film.
The heart of the piece is the worthy character of Mulan herself. She’s definitely empowered: she’s resourceful, brave and a good warrior. She also has a lot of personality, which really shows in her facial expressions.
Even though some of this is disposable – the gospel music that’s heard when Mushu introduces himself to Mulan is a bit much, and her fellow warriors are mainly there to make very corny jokes (in American accents, of course) – this is the best delivery of Disney’s “Be True To Your Heart” message in a while.
* 2009 note: My high school friend Leo O’Drudy had never heard that song until that scene. We saw The Lion King together, and after the screening he asked me what that song had been: like, was it part of a longer Elton John-Tim Rice song that had been mostly cut out or something? He’d lived much of his childhood in Japan, and had interesting holes in his pop-culture knowledge.