|Aug/Sep 1998 Film and Cinema|
Capsule: A young woman secretly substituting
for her father in the all-male army becomes a war
hero. Disney Studios' resurrection of a Chinese
Beauty and the Beast. The animators know how to
use computer animation to create some fantastic
effects. If only they would learn not to sacrifice
the carefully achieved style for the sake of some
Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
The first thing I ask of a Disney film is whether the storyteller took large liberties with the original source. Unfortunately, though I have several books on Chinese history and folklore, Hua Mulan (or Fa Mulan, as she is called in this film) lies somewhere in the gray area between the two, a real person of whom much is told but little is remembered. There were some patchy references to Mulan on the Internet, the best of which were under http://www.chinapage.com. That reference indicated that there are is only a little in common among the tales of Mulan, and for the most part this animated story is fairly accurate to what is common in those tales. The one variance is that the original Mulan stories had her fighting for years and then retiring before her ruse was revealed. The Emperor offers her a position at court, but she refuses it and takes instead a horse as her reward. This is somewhat different from the Disney version, but then it is hard to compress an entire military career to an 88-minute movie. Since there are no specific stories of her service, the scriptwriters are probably justified in presenting the time as being just a few months. For once Disney Studios animated films are reasonably accurate to the source material. Perhaps this is some penance for their travesty on Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Fa Mulan is the daughter of a former soldier, once a strong soldier but now old and infirm. The high- spirited young woman is being forced into the traditional role of young Chinese women her age. She has to try to make herself look pretty and submissive enough to be matched with a man who will prize a submissive and pretty women. But she knows that is not her. She asks her mirror, "When will my reflection show who I am inside?" But the time is approaching. The Huns have attacked the Emperor's lands and her father is called into service in the Emperor's army. Mulan's father is old and sickly, but the law says that each family must provide a soldier. (In the legend Mulan has brother, but he is too young to fight.) To the mind of the army that means that Mulan's father must return to military service. But Mulan knows her father is too weak to serve, and she has other ideas. She disguises herself as a man and joins the army herself. Mulan's ancestors wish to send a powerful dragon spirit to guard her and give her wisdom, but through a trick they instead send Mushu, a comical little dragon who needs protecting himself. Well, you probably know the rest of the story. This is a standard telling complete with the nudity jokes that might seem out of place for a Disney Studios animated film.
The artwork is generally extremely good in MULAN, though for stylistic reasons most of the characters look two-dimensional, and perhaps a little less realistic than characters drawn in the past. On the other hand, there are spectacular aerial views that look more like live-action film than animation. Other scenes show good imagination in recreating classical China from village life to the Emperor's palace suggesting the Forbidden City, but exaggerated from what that palace was to what it might have been in stories. In a film about Chinese fighting in hand-to-hand combat, the film could have easily degenerated into excessive and ultimately boring animations of martial arts techniques. Happily, the Disney animators resisted that temptation, if indeed they had it. And once again each major character is created by a different team who does art work. That is the right approach. Familiar actors voice many of the characters, and I strongly recommend that the audience stay for the credits. But I would like to call specific attention to the speaking voice of Mulan's grandmother done by the wonderful June Foray. Foray was the voice of Rocket J. Squirrel and virtually all of the female characters on ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE.
But the film is far from perfect. The antics of Eddie Murphy as Mushu—who presumably takes his name from a popular Chinese dish—are sure to be a pleaser, but only for those in the audience for whom any comedy is better than no comedy. But it is a sad misstep for others. One can only feel sorry for the stylists who worked so hard trying to create an atmosphere evocative of China of the ancient past only to have that effort sabotaged for the sake of a joke. The inclusion of Murphy's Mushu was obviously inspired by the Robin Williams schtick in ALADDIN, which was equally out of place. The Chinese history is a little amiss also. If this were, as is claimed, the Emperor who had the Great Wall built, that would make him the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. But he ruled from 221 B.C. to 206 B.C., well before the time of the Huns, and was anything but the benevolent despot we see in the film. But except for the inclusion of the painfully inappropriate Eddie Murphy this is a respectful and respectable version of Mulan's story.
In the end, MULAN is a sort of YENTL with warfare. Even at its silliest it is fun, and at times the images on the screen are the most impressive of any Disney animated film to date. Probably the best two Disney animated films in recent years, or any years, are BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and MULAN. Perhaps at Disney they do their best work treating vulnerable female heroes. Overall, Walt would have been proud. I rate MULAN 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.