Classic Review: Mulan (1998)
“Mulan” stars Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer, June Foray, James Hong, Pat Morita, and George Takei. Released on June 19, 1998, the film is about a woman who takes her father’s place to serve the Imperial Army.
The film was directed by Barry Cook, the co-director of “Arthur Christmas” and “Walking with Dinosaurs”, and Tony Bancroft. It is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, and it was the 36th animated film in the Walt Disney Animation Studios library. This weekend would’ve seen the release of Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of one of their animated classics. However, since it got delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, I had no choice but to go to the original source as a backup plan. The source I’m referring to is a small animated film about a Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man. This is one of the films that were released during the Disney Renaissance, the period during the 90s which saw the studio making a huge comeback after releasing hit after hit after hit. While it didn’t earn as much money as the likes of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King”, it did manage to revive the studio’s winning streak by outgrossing the box office totals of the previous two films that came before it, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules”. The film’s success resulted in the main character becoming a part of the Disney Princess lineup and inspired Disney to develop the 2004 direct-to-video follow-up, “Mulan II” and the just-mentioned live-action remake of the same name. Like my past experiences with the other Disney classics, I had some fond memories watching “Mulan”, including the characters and the songs, although I didn’t watch it as much as “The Lion King” during my childhood. I guess that’s what happens when I have a bunch of Disney films in my inventory. Now that I reached adulthood, it’s time to see if Disney’s take on the Chinese legend can hold up well in my critical eyes. For those who haven’t watched this film yet, I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can.
The story takes place in China during the Han Dynasty, where the villainous Huns, lead by the ruthless Shan Yu (Ferrer), are invading the country. This lead the emperor (Morita) to order a mobilization to defend China from the invaders. The army requires one man from each family, including Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh), an army veteran and father of Fa Mulan (Wen). Concerned about her father’s weakening health, Mulan decides to take her father’s place in the army by…wait for it…disguising herself as a man. With the help of a disgraced former guardian Mushu (Murphy), she must assist the army, under the command of Captain Li Shang (Wong), in defeating the Huns and bring honor to her family. The film followed the same plot as the poem it’s based on, Guo Maoqian’s The Ballad of Mulan, but offered a few changes to make it more appropriate for its target audience, which is undoubtedly families. So if you’re looking for a film adaptation that’s 100% accurate to the source material as well as its historical culture, Disney’s “Mulan” may not be the one that will bring honor to your needs. Disney is usually known for taking historic moments and classic stories and adapt them into animated features with some minor changes and a few doses of kid-friendly material to boot. When you get past some of their “inaccuracies”, these films have plenty of charm to impress almost everyone, including me. Some of them work well enough to be successful. Others, not so much. “Mulan” is a suitable example of the former. Following the traditional Disney formula, the film showcases fast-paced action, fun characters, and a plot that touches the hearts of kids and adults. In addition to exploring its themes of war and honor, “Mulan” also offered an inspiring and well-portrayed story that involves the main character’s journey to bring honor to her family and become her own person. What makes the story inspiring is that it represents two different traditions, one for the women and one for the men, and Mulan, who happens to follow the women’s tradition, was able to break that tradition in order to save her father’s life despite the consequences she’ll receive. It’s a film that says “be who you want to be, not what others think you should be”. Not only was Mulan a strong and fitting character for this scenario, but she was wonderfully voiced by Ming-Na Wen, who is also known for her role as Melinda May in the Marvel series, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” She brought a lot of depth and personality into this role much like the other voice actors for the Disney Princesses. My only minor issue with the story was the film’s antagonist, Shan Yu. I can admit that he’s an intimidating foe and Miguel Ferrer’s voice work was top notch, but he’s not something that I would call “Best Villain Material” compared to the other memorable Disney baddies like Scar from “The Lion King” and Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast”. Aside from that, the story has enough heart, humor, and action to successfully deliver its intended message to those who seek to be one’s self and provide some good, kid-friendly fun for the little ones. The animation also served as one of the strong qualities of the film, ranging from its vibrant background designs to the fluidity of its character designs and action scenes. Like “The Lion King”, “Mulan” has a couple of scenes that combine 2D animation with computer-generated imagery, including the snowy mountain showdown between the army and the Huns which, by the way, still looks amazing. If there’s one thing you should know about these types of animated films, it’s that Disney knows how to make quality animation, even in the 90s. Of course, it’s not a Disney animated film without some comical side characters. While the likes of Yao, Ling, Chien-Po, Chi-Fu, and Cri-Kee have plenty of humor to go around, the only main attraction of the show was none other than the mini dragon himself, Mushu. I really liked Mushu when I was younger, and I still like him today. With the combination of Eddie Murphy’s charismatic voice work and his endearing personality, Mushu is another Disney sidekick that kids will love and adults will find tolerable. The musical score by the late Jerry Goldsmith had the proper essence to capture the serenity of its Chinese scenery and the intensity of its action scenes, and the songs were quite lively, with “Reflection” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” being my personal highlights of the soundtrack.
Overall, “Mulan” is honorable enough to join the ranks of the Disney Renaissance. Filled with a well-told story, likable characters, great animation, and a respectable soundtrack, the film has brought honor to its audience more than 20 years ago, and it will continue to do so for the next 20 years or so. It doesn’t rank as high as “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” in my opinion, but it’s still a worthy addition to the studio’s collection of animated treasures. It’s also something that will keep us occupied until the live-action remake finds its official release date. Hopefully it’ll find one sooner or later. The film is available on Disney+ right now, so if you have the streaming service and you’re one of the people who either haven’t seen it yet or haven’t seen it in a while, it’s worth checking out.
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