Saturday, September 5, 2020

Mulan (1998)

Mulan, based on a Chinese ballad known as the Ballad of Mulan, was a film I had seen at least once when I was a kid, albeit on home video. Though it had been years since I had seen the 1998 movie, I remember liking it at the time, however I had sometimes considered re-watching it in order to pay more attention to the story and see if my opinion on it had changed. That opportunity came when a live-action remake of the movie was announced by Disney, though I would not actually jump on that chance until recently, in the wake of the remake’s release on Disney+ (for the low, low price of $30 on top of the regular subscription) in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After viewing the 1998 Mulan again, I though it not only managed to hold up well after 22 years, it was a lot better than I remembered.

In ancient China, an army of Huns led by Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) have begun to invade after managing to bypass the Great Wall of China. Meanwhile, Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is seen preparing for a matchmaker to find a suitor and bring honor to her family, but a series of mishaps lead her to fail this spectacularly. When the Emperor calls for men from every family to join the counterattack against the Huns, Mulan’s father Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh) takes the call. Mulan, seeing her father is too frail for combat, sneaks out while crossdressing as a man in order to take her father’s place, hoping to bring honor to her family. Her ancestors, seeing this as a bad decision, opt to send one of the family guardians to try and bring her back, however a mishap leads the demoted dragon guardian Mushu (Eddie Murphy) to go instead.

I am aware that the story takes some creative liberties with the source material to make it suitable for a Disney movie at the time, however, aside from maybe an episode of the game American McGee’s Grimm based on it, I do not have enough knowledge of the ballad to say exactly how different the Disney version is. On its own, the movie has a very straightforward narrative that’s easy to follow, while also tackling the gender relations of China at the time it takes place without making it too overt. Since women were not allowed to go into battle, among other things, the fact that Mulan has to disguise herself as a man in order to prove herself creates tension and contributes to a character arc where the military men, and eventually all of China, grow to respect her based on her accomplishments and combat prowess despite her having to lie in order to get close to them.

Mushu (Eddie Murphy, left) tries to help Mulan
(Ming-Na Wen, right) blend in with the other men.

Mushu, meanwhile, provides some well-executed comic relief in such a way that manages not to detract from said tension. He also has his own character arc, where he wants to be seen as worthy of being a guardian again, believing that aiding Mulan in her journey will help with that. Though their goals are similar, their reasons are different, something Mushu even calls out once during the movie, creating complementary character arcs between Mushu and Mulan.

One thing that’s aged well is the animation, which is very fluid and expressive. The movie also takes full advantage of the medium by seamlessly working in some more magical or supernatural elements, such as Mushu and the Fa family’s ancestors. One effect I particularly liked was the sparkling effects used for trails of fireworks and cannon mortars, as well as some well-animated explosions and a snow avalanche. There is some CG work in the movie, however it’s used very minimally and whatever CG there is is utilized such that you barely notice it, if at all. One other thing I appreciated is that, while Mulan’s horse Khan (Frank Welker) is very expressive and stylized, he is animated such that, unlike Maximus from the later Disney movie Tangled, he still behaves more like an actual horse.

As with many animated Disney films, Mulan is a musical, though the songs are spaced such that the bulk of the movie is actually telling the story, with one ("I'll Make a Man Out of You") serving as a training montage during the first half. That said, some songs are designed to offer some insight into the world and characters, with the “big” song of the movie being Mulan’s introspective number “Reflection”, sung by Lea Solanga. This song sees Mulan lamenting how the expectations of gender roles in ancient China make her feel like she has to hide her true personality in order to find a suitor, as well as her inability to live up to what were considered the standards of being a good wife, only for her personality to finally come through when she later takes her father’s place in combat.

"Reflection" is a well-made introspective song, which has also
since become the subject of internet memes.

The voice acting in general is also worthy of praise, with Ming-Na Wen pulling off a wide range of emotions as Mulan, as well as a humorously false male voice when under the guise of Ping. Eddie Murphy’s comedy works well for Mushu, who provides much of the comic relief in the movie, however there are times where some serious moments allow Murphy to display some of his real acting ability. Though Shan Yu doesn’t have much screen time, Miguel Ferrer’s performance helps to sell him as intimidating whenever he’s onscreen, allowing him to remain a legitimate threat when not. Though she plays a bit character, it’s worth mentioning that June Foray is among the voice cast as Grandmother Fa, managing to make the character memorable with whatever screen time she has.

Though the movie was released in 1998, it has had a lasting legacy, most notably as a World in Kingdom Hearts II, with Mushu also available as a Summon in the original Kingdom Hearts and a Summon Card in Chain of Memories. Though Kingdom Hearts II provides a highly-condensed version of the story, with Mushu’s presence in the preceding games becoming a minor plot point, it was nevertheless through this game that I was still familiar with some of the movie’s story beats in the time between viewings of the actual film. In more recent years, Mulan’s original promotional campaign involving a special Szechuan McNugget dipping sauce at McDonald’s has received a bit of infamy online following a chance mention in the [adult swim] cartoon Rick and Morty, leading to such high demand (and some rioting) that McDonald’s brought back the dipping sauce for a limited time. This allowed us to actually try said dipping sauce for the first time and, while I can vouch for its deliciousness, I didn’t think it was worth rioting over. On a lesser note, there was also a direct-to-video sequel in 2004, simply titled Mulan II, though I have no desire to watch it myself.

More than two decades later, Mulan still holds up as an excellent movie, with some stellar animation, music and voice talent at work. I would recommend this movie for those reasons, especially for fans of the Disney Animated Canon, however some of the changes made to the original story will likely upset purists. I personally am not very interested in the live-action remake, in part due to the $30 price point, though it will later be available to all Disney+ subscribers in December and I won’t stop others who actually do want to see it.

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