LOOK BACK: Mulan at 20
Today is the 20th anniversary for the Disney animated classic Mulan which opened on June 19, 1998. On this occasion, I thought I would watch the film again and give some thoughts. It is one of my favorite Disney films of all time and I still enjoy watching it after all these years.
Mulan is base on the Robert San Souci's children's book adaptation of the famous Chinese legend of Hua Mulan who, like in the movie, takes the place of her father and joins the Emperor's army. She serves for several years as a man and then retires without reward. The Disney animated feature, of course, adds its Disney spin to the legend by adding a talking animal in the form of Mushu the dragon who serves as her guide. But, for the most part, it follows the basic narrative of the story.
I know the Chinese were not necessarily keen about the Disneyfication of their beloved folk hero. Its sad because I really do think the artists, for the most part, tried to capture Chinese culture the best way they could. Could it be better? Sure, anything can be better. But, I appreciated the attempt. It makes me sad, though, that she, as a Disney character, is not popular in China. You rarely see her at the Chinese Disney Parks. Although, I was reduced to a puddle of tears when the Mulan unit rolled by in Mickey's Storybook Express at Shanghai Disneyland.
Mulan is voiced by Ming-Na Wen (Disney Legend in my mind, but, inexplicably, is not officially one right now), one of her first big roles after The Joy Luck Club. I never really think about the actress when watching the movie, which is a good thing. Although, knowing who she is today, it is fun to hear her voice. Her singing voice is provided by Broadway darling Lea Salonga. Sadly, she really only has one song that she fully sings in "Reflection." And, it is a stripped down version from what was originally written, believe it or not. I've seen Ms. Salonga perform the full version and I wish they had not cut it. I love the song "Reflection" as I think it touches the heart of anybody who doesn't fit the norms.
I am glad that the film stars mostly actors of Asian descent. Along with Ming-Na Wen (and Lea Salonga), you have B.D. Wong as Li Shang, Soon-Tek Oh as Mulan's father Fa Zhou, Freda Foh Shen as her mother Fa Li, Pat Morita as the Emperor, George Takei as the First Ancestor, James Hong as Chi-Fu, James Shigeta as General Li, Gedde Watanabe as Ling and Jerry Tondo as Chien-Po. That said, I'm not sure why they couldn't have cast all Asian. June Foray as Grandmother Fa, Miguel Ferrer as Shan Yu, Miriam Margolyes as the Matchmaker, Harvey Fierstein as Yao and, of course, Eddie Murphy as Mushu and Donny Osmond as Li Shang's singing voice have the largest roles voiced by non-Asians. I mean, I can't imagine the film without them, but, it would have been nice if the just cast Asian for the roles. Why didn't B.D. Wong provide his own singing voice? He can sing. He comes from Broadway!
Anyway, I think that Mulan is one of Disney's best looking films. The great thing about watching a film more than once is that you get to appreciate things you don't when you just watch it once. The color styling and the layouts are simply gorgeous. They really capture the beautiful abstract soft brushwork of Chinese ink and wash paintings. In this day when everything is computer animated, I sometimes wonder what certain films would look like if they were done today. Mulan is one of those films that I think is better served as traditional animation to truly capture the watercolor inspired art. When the film opens as if an artist is painting clouds with that wonderful choral version of "Honor To Us All," it just gives me the chills.
I love all the songs in the movie. Once "Honor To Us All" gets in my head, I cannot get it out. Another one of my favorite songs from the movie is "I'll Make A Man Out Of You." Yes, its loaded with testosterone, but its very poetic at the same time. Stephen Schwartz, who's written some of the best music for Disney in the 90s, was originally tapped to write the music, but abandoned the project to write the music for The Prince of Egypt for DreamWorks. So, Matthew Wilder and David Zippel came in to write the songs. While I am a big Schwartz fan, I think they did a great job with the songs. I just feel the film is lacking music. It could have used more songs. I definitely feel like Mulan should have had another song, especially when you have Lea Salonga as a talent. But, then again, she was the singing voice of Jasmine from Aladdin and all she did was sing half a song. So, I guess its a step up for to have a whole song this time.
Another interesting switch in the musical realm of this movie was they originally tapped Rachel Portman to compose the score. I thought she would have been an interesting choice as she scored The Joy Luck Club which was very beautiful. The score eventually went to famed movie composer Jerry Goldsmith and I enjoy his score quite a bit. But, I really would love to hear what Portman would have done.
I think that the characters are great. I love Mushu as a character even though the Chinese did not appreciate him. Eddie Murphy is unorthodox as a voice in a movie about a Chinese legend, but it works. Mushu provides a lot of the funnier moments in the film and is fun to see him as her version of Jiminy Cricket. Also providing humor are Yao, Ling and Chien-Po who give Mulan other characters to go through the journey of "being made a man out of." And, the great James Hong gets to also play the humorous, but unlikable, Chi-Fu who, despite his lack of traditional manhood, is the judge, alongside of Li Shang, of what makes a man. On the less humorous side of things, Soon-Tek Oh delivers a wonderful vocal performance, especially when he speaks to Mulan in the garden both at the beginning and end of the film.
Finally, I love the message in this film. Its one I can relate to on many levels - as a child that had many expectations on him of being a doctor, as a gay child, as a nerd. I don't fit many norms despite society's pressures to be what it wants me to be. So, to see a hero bloom with adversity is the most beautiful of all.