Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger would never cut off his ponytail to join the Chinese army, so Mulan has him beat right there.
"You don't meet a girl like that every dynasty."—The Emperor
My unscientific polling of the cultural consciousness indicates that Mulan is not considered to be among the upper echelon of Disney films. Recent efforts like The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast resonate strongly with people, whereas Pocahontas languishes in nearly universal unpopularity.
Among her contemporaries, Mulan is difficult to categorize. The film stands out as a break from traditional Disney fare. Mulan is a war movie, the first and last in the Disney animated feature canon. It is fiercely feminist, but not heavy-handed. It borrows heavily from Chinese art and lore, yet it features a wisecracking Eddie Murphy. Mulan is a paradox in many ways. I'm not surprised by Mulan's second-class citizenship, but it is worth a second look because it wields the truest emotion and most epic action in the entire Magic Kingdom.
Facts of the Case
When the Huns breach the Great Wall, the Emperor of China calls for one man from each family to join the Chinese forces. Mulan's father is an esteemed veteran, but the last campaign left him lame. Nonetheless, as the only male in the Fa family, he takes his conscription notice with pride.
Mulan (Ming-Na, The Joy Luck Club) is not cut out for the life of a demure housewife. Rather than see her father killed in combat and live her life as a homemaker, Mulan takes the conscription notice and steals away in the dead of night. Her ancestors send a wisecracking miniature dragon named Mushu (Eddie Murphy, Beverly Hills Cop) to watch over Mulan as she insinuates herself into the Chinese army. Will Mulan's strong-minded antics bring honor or disgrace to the Fa family? That all depends on Mulan's superior officer, Captain Li Shang (B.D. Wong, Seven Years in Tibet).
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you to consider Mulan in a different light than other Disney flicks. It is not the most purely entertaining of Disney's impressively entertaining lineup, nor is it the most accessible. What Mulan offers is one of Disney's most adult and honest films.
Too often, Disney films have emphasized a strange fantasy element wherein the protagonist is either an orphan, the child of a king, or a frantic little animated creature fighting against the Big World. These formulas have worked well for Disney, but they leave behind the whiff of unreality and force a "poor me" angle. Mulan is just a girl, spirited yet frustrated. She is clumsy, speaks at the wrong time, and generally leaves a wake of chaos behind her. Her parents aren't unrealistically mythical in stature (though her father is quietly heroic). In other words, Mulan comes from plain circumstances, and she is headed for a nondescript adulthood. (Incidentally, this review is headed for moderate spoilers.)
Directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft summarize Mulan's character and establish Mulan's feminist underpinnings through a telling encounter with the local matchmaker. Mulan becomes a prim, proper, and subservient bride candidate—but demure trappings do not tame her. Mulan collides with a Jungian parade of feminine symbols, something adults will readily absorb while kids will glide past. Mulan makes a mess of things, but the movie maintains a light tone.
But tough times come to her door, and Mulan must make a decision. This is the moment when Mulan's heroism blooms. She sees her father collapse while practicing swordplay, sizes up her own shortcomings and probable future, and decides to take his place in the Chinese army. Though it is never explicitly stated, I think Mulan is choosing her own death over that of her father. It is a dark premise, one with the gravity to support true emotion.
The payoff comes quickly: The sequence between the arrival of the Emperor's decree and Mulan's departure is absolutely incredible. Animation from creative points of view emphasizes Mulan's subversiveness while showing us the rift in her own self-image. The escape sequence is essentially silent, though set to imposing music. It is a fluid montage of scenes that culminate in a desperately heroic action. By the time Mulan has leapt onto her horse's back and set off into the rainy night, you may find yourself genuinely choked up.
From this point onward, Mulan becomes a war movie. The training camp sequence is a lighter version of Full Metal Jacket's grueling first act, with a grim captain motivating his troops to prepare for war. The battle between the sexes becomes literal, with Mulan receiving a black eye or two. Once again, this is atypical fare for the House of Mouse.
The best is yet to come. Captain Li Shang and his band of misfits come face to face with the marauding Huns in a sequence that invites favorable comparison to the most epic movie scenes of war. Shang's troops fall into a defensive formation in the bowl of a broad valley; though they react quickly, we can see the hopelessness of their plight. With their backs to a cliff, Shang's "men" watch thousands of cavalry crest the rim of the valley and sweep down like a black flood. This image is singularly powerful, granting Mulan cinematic authority. The drama of that image heightens the impact of Mulan's subsequent actions. Her moment of victory is scintillating.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film cannot live up to the majesty of the first two acts. We're unceremoniously dumped into the middle of a tepid action movie with a foregone conclusion. As we wait for the scripted actions to wrap up, there isn't a whole lot to keep our minds occupied.
The very final scenes have drawn some criticism for invalidating Mulan's feminist angle. They seem to say "Yes, Mulan proved her equality, but she can't really be happy without a hunky man by her side." The ending did not bother me one bit. It is obvious that the resolution suits Mulan. If anything, the ending demonstrates a triumph of Mulan's spirited actions over traditional Chinese gender roles. Her suitor should see her executed under Chinese law, but he instead comes to terms with her unique charms and seeks her hand.
I don't know what path Mulan should have taken. I would have opted for an extension of the battle scenes, perhaps a game of cat and mouse with the Huns, culminating in the battle in the valley. It is hard for a film to recover when its climax comes in the middle. Even so, the first two acts contain enough emotional honesty and ferociously mature themes to elevate Mulan above most Disney movies.
Disney is a master of making scant extras seem bountiful. Mulan: Special Edition boasts a healthy amount of extra material for a normal release, but is a little thin for a special edition. Ironically, the most entertaining extra is the Mandarin language track. Taking a cue from Michael Mackenzie's fantastic review of the Mulan: Special Edition (linked in the sidebar), I gave this track a listen. It casts the film in a different frame, stoic and introspective. Americans devour Asian media such as Japanese anime, and we can choose between awkward dubs or reading subtitles. English is Mulan's native tongue, but the story and vibe are Chinese. Listening to the Chinese dub and reading along with subtitles aligns Mulan with an anime viewing. Try it.
We aren't done, of course. Between a remarkably informative commentary, annotated deleted scenes, and an entire second disc detailing the creation of Mulan, we get a good idea of what went into making this film. The deleted scenes are quite rough and not very interesting to watch, although they have a rugged artistry. The real benefit is seeing the false starts and vying approaches taken to the material. Bancroft and Cook are fittingly in love with the ideas behind Mulan, both those that made it in and those that did not. The comments periodically have an enthusiastic/promotional flavor, but behind that is a sense of great struggle and triumph. The trio of Pam Coats, Tony Bancroft, and Barry Cook is as somber as the movie they created. I appreciate Mulan's dark tone and their respect for that darkness.
The remaining extras aren't write-home material. Among the four music videos, only the "Jackie Chan singing while swinging a staff around" video is truly extra quality. (Chan provided Shang's voice for the Mandarin track.) Raven's music video is inexplicable and un-catchy. The trivia tour extra is obvious, but for some reason I was unreasonably entertained by Mushu's talking points. Taken as a whole, the extras are on the vague and disjointed side, but then again Mulan isn't one of Disney's unqualified successes. The bottom line is that this is the version of Mulan you'll want to have in your collection.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft both had animation experience on other Disney features, but neither had previously directed a feature. Two rookie directors working together on one major film seems like a lot to ask, and the direction suffers. The aforementioned listless third act is the biggest example, but other minor pacing issues reveal uncertain direction. It is hard to spot their directorial trends because neither has directed since Mulan.
Visually speaking, Mulan: Special Edition is a two-headed dragon. Many of the scenes are vibrant and crisp, with fluid integration of 2-D animation with computer rendering. Most important, the feature is shown in the native aspect ratio of 1.66:1. On the other hand, many of the scenes suffer from pronounced color banding, excessive blurriness, and extreme edge enhancement. The worst edge enhancement comes when the transfer gets blurry, which forces me to wonder if someone bumped the control knobs halfway through. The larger your screen, the more annoying the image will be.
As an aural experience, Mulan is subdued. The 5.1 track is dramatic in about two scenes (coincidentally, my favorite two scenes in the film). Otherwise, the soundtrack is not particularly dynamic.
Quick! Sing a song from Mulan! Chances are you couldn't think of one. The songs fit the material well enough, but they utterly lack the catchiness of most Disney efforts. On the other hand, Matthew Wilder's score is appropriately dark and exotic. The best scenes in Mulan shut up and take action, with Wilder's themes enhancing the mood.
Mulan is a mixed bag, and the Special Edition echoes it. A broad spatter of extras reveals some of the challenges inherent in the film but doesn't give us a deeper sense of Mulan's identity within the Disney canon.
The film itself is a sometimes awkward balancing act of action, romance, war, violence, and humor. Don't let those issues mar your enjoyment of Disney's most powerful scenes and most mature issues, though. When Mulan finds herself and spurs herself into selfless action, we are taken into a hair-raising nexus of visceral spectacle and strong emotional undercurrent. This clumsy girl, goaded into extreme actions by love for her family, meets overwhelming pressure with grace. Mulan is the closest thing to an actual hero I've seen in Disneyland.
Mulan the Demoted One is hereby promoted. Let her enjoy the honor that her actions have warranted.
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