In their 36th animated feature, Walt Disney Feature Animation brings an ancient legend to life in this colorful tale about the brave Chinese warrior Mulan. The story of the titular heroine, Hua Mulan, follows the tomboyish girl who disguises herself as a young man so she can fight with the Imperial Chinese Army against the invading Huns. This rousing adventure, one that blends fact and fiction, is as exciting as it is fun and full of the familiar Disney mainstays; a trifecta of colorful characters, kooky sidekicks and an almost fantasy-based story line. Walt Disney Home Entertainment releases this underrated story, and its less than flattering sequel, in a glamorous Blu-Ray Collector’s Edition combo.
In height of the Disney Renaissance of the late 80s to mid 90s (the perfect storm of creative talents documented and celelebrated in Waking Sleeping Beauty), the Mouse House gave us films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and finally The Lion King which was the pinnacle of the studio’s so-called second wind. By the time we got to this muted but rather wondrous tale it was clear the studio was nearing the end of its search for unique female characters since they’d just about covered all the major princess yarns. Pocahontas was moderately successful (and in our opinion won major cute points with probably the best animal sidekicks the studio ever created) and was most likely the precursor to their interpretation of Mulan. So with this re-imagined heroine Disney looked to offer up a new kind of female character; ones that were progressively stronger in both will and attitude.
We’ve seen princess movies before and Disney has given us scores of timid women who come into their own. Yet never before have we seen a battle ready female lead character. Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli had been doing it for decades and it looked to be good change of pace for Disney but Mulan still echoes the “you can’t tell me what to do, I’m my own person” attitude/formula we’ve come to expect. In fact it is so expected in these features it’s almost boilerplate. However why do people look to Disney features? A variety of reasons really, but mainly it comes down to inspiration. As children, boys and girls, we’re shown heroes who rise above the restraints or confines of their upbringing and these stories become an example of how to be strong, keep hope alive and believe in our dreams.
Plus they’re fun with just enough danger to them. Mulan is a film that has all that and more. It makes kids and adults smile and who doesn’t want to see a story of a hero triumph, rise above adversity and show everyone that they had the strength to succeed the whole time? Mulan‘s message rings loud and clear but Disney’s animation here really is a testament to the talented and unsung animators on the project. Say what you will about the narrative flaws in this or any Disney film but the studio brings a cheery yet sophisticated and elegant color palette to the minimalist animation of Mulan. It, like the story, is so refreshing there are more than a few times when it doesn’t seem like a Disney feature…until they start singing that is. But the cast including the likes of Eddie Murphy and Pat Morita are suited to their roles and enliven their characters which keeps the story moving along.
While Mulan can easily be considered an underrated film it deserves a little more credit that it gets. It’s a solid effort and may not get the recognition it deserves based simply on the time when it was made/released. It gets a little less lime light than Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King which are all incredibly tough acts to follow. Anything that comes even 2% short of those “classics” can easily be dismissed as an also-ran which is unfair. Mulan has its fan base and really the bits that don’t work can be likened to knit-picking as does the film’s attempts at humor that kind of get in the way of the heart-felt message.
However, it is one of the many Disney films that while great in its own right it is sorely diluted with a paltry second rate direct-to-video sequel. Not only is the sequentially named sequel Mulan II under cooked, forced and in a narrative sense does nothing to advance the story of the first Mulan, it is ultimately unnecessary and the product’s poor quality speaks for itself. It’s not 100% bad as we do get the original voice talent back which helps ease the pain of this sub-par sequel. But they can’t make this breezy yet hollow follow-up seem very worthwhile.
Mulan is not an undisputed Disney classic but it’s still a good film. It’s a fun and engaging story replete with all the warm and familiar animation the Mouse House is known for. The songs tend to feel a bit tacked on and as we saw later with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it is possible to have a compelling and mature “Disney” film sans the cute sidekicks and musical numbers. Perhaps Mulan could have had a chance to become its own film breaking free of the Disney formula/conventions but that also means we might not have got Eddie Murphy. Regardless, this not quite princess Princess movie with bite is actually refreshing and at the end of the day a fun adventure whether you’ve experienced it before or not. Mulan (even if it is packaged with its low rent sequel) will make a fine addition to any home video shelf.