Thursday, February 7, 2013

Disney Milks The Chinese Folktale Mulan Into A Familiar Flick

The Good: Strong protagonist, Decent story progression, Decent voice work
The Bad: Obvious Disney conceits, Very predictable plot/character development.
The Basics: A generally worthwhile story with good animation, Mulan falls into using the standard Disney conceits, making it a less than spectacular overall film.

My wife is a huge fan of Disney movies. It seems like whenever she is ill, Disney movies become an intellectual “comfort food” for her. So, with the removal of her wisdom tooth yesterday, I thought one of the ways to keep her warm, happy, and comfortable was to put on one of the many Disney movies I purchased for her since we met. I went with Mulan, largely because it was one that I had not yet reviewed.

Mulan is based upon an ancient Chinese folktale and the best elements of it are those that defy the Disney formula, as opposed to the many aspects that conform to their familiar structure. I mention this because I have not read or heard the original folktale, so I am unsure of how many liberties the huge staff of Disney writers took with the folktale and which elements were part of the original. As a result, this is a very pure review of the film Mulan with no commentary on the story upon which the film was based.

Mulan is a rebellious young woman living in ancient China when the country comes under siege by the Huns. As citizens from each family are conscripted to join the army to defend China, Mulan realizes her father is too old to survive. In defiance of her family, the emperor, and the ancient spirits that watch over her family, Mulan disguised herself as a boy and joins the military as her father’s namesake. While she is trained, the ancient spirits of the family enlist the disgraced dragon Mushu to stop her. In meeting Mulan, Mushu is actually convinced of how just her cause and methods are and he sets out to help her.

Standing against bullies within the army and the huns who are attacking, Mulan helps defend China and Shang, the rising star of the military.

Mulan is good and it is at its strongest as a character piece when it is focused on Mulan herself and her quest to forge her own life, away from the traditional roles thrust upon her. One of the first songs, which has her in training to be a dutiful wife, is one of the film’s few memorable musical moments and it sets up her discord with society – and the ancient spirits. Mulan should be a strong, smart character study about a young woman in the process of becoming.

Instead, however, it begins to employ the tragically familiar “Disney elements.” There are the buffoonish adversary/sidekicks, in the form of three military recruits who take an instant dislike to Mulan, but fall all over each other more than they do real harm to her. There is the comic relief sidekick in the form of Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy. There is the authoritarian figure or figures – the Emperor and the Ancient Spirits –, the romantic lead (Shang), and the generic villain. The wisecracks come at exactly the most predictable moments for anyone who has seen three to five (or more) Disney works prior to this one.

The plot set-up, though, it formulaic Disney. The moment Mulan dresses up as a man, the viewer knows there will be the exposing of Mulan as a woman and anyone familiar with Disney fare knows that Mushu’s task will invariably lead to his forgiveness by the ancient spirits, no matter what happens between the moment he is given his task and the conclusion of the film. Mulan is, in many ways, utterly unsurprising.

How, then, does Mulan even get up into average territory? First, the animation is pretty decent. There is a better sense of proportion and movement in the characters than there were in other Disney films of this era (late 1990s). While the music in Mulan is largely unmemorable, the character is one of the strongest female protagonists in Disney history. Indeed, Mulan is not a damsel in distress; she is a young woman taking charge of her own life and that is admirable and sets a fairly positive message for girls and young women. Her character’s journey, however, would be stronger without the Disney conceits. Lacking Mushu for guidance and random troublemaking help and the lame internal adversaries in the form of her fellow enlistees, Mulan would have grown to be an empowered heroine who rose on her own merits, as opposed to standing out as better than the lackluster lackeys the army conscripted or relying upon the occasionally unseen hand of her sidekick.

The voice acting in Mulan is universally wonderful, employing the talents of George Takei, B.D. Wong, Ming-Na Wen, Marni Nixon, Pat Morita, Miriam Margolyes, James Hong, Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, and very obviously Eddie Murphy. The voices are expressive and good, even when the characters are monolithic or mundane.

Ultimately, Mulan could have been a strong, feminist story that was actually inspiring, but instead Disney played it safe to conform to its supposedly-winning formula. That conformity robs the film of much of its sense of originality – it simply becomes another Disney movie with a different setting – and makes it less than it should have been.

For other Disney animated films, please visit my reviews of:
Wreck-It Ralph
Toy Story 3
A Christmas Carol
The Princess And The Frog
The Incredibles
Lilo & Stitch
Monsters, Inc.
The Lion King
Beauty And The Beast
The Little Mermaid
Lady And The Tramp
The Sword In The Stone
Sleeping Beauty


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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