d. Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook / 1998 / USA / 90 mins
In the early nineties Disney were on a roll, releasing Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King in the short space of only four years. Almost twenty years later, Disney’s 2D animated features have still not managed to recreate the acclaim they once had, playing second fiddle to the 3D exploits of Pixar and Dreamworks. Although occasionally successful, many felt at the time that their late nineties offerings, (Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan) were the products of a company whose formula had turned stale.
Mulan borrows heavily from the styles of Eastern animation that would keep the medium alive as the West’s creative output began to dry up. A slight departure for Disney’s animated heritage, Mulan would be based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a popular forerunner for gender equality whose exploits were passed down through the centuries in the poem, The Ballad of Mulan.
The creative minds behind the film spent three weeks in China, researching the imagery and culture of the land and much of that is evident in the film’s distinctive visual style and background details. Although often historically inaccurate, nearly all of the films’ design finds a companion within reality that at its best, removes us from anything Disney has attempted before but at its worst, highlights how much the grand scope of The Lion King’s African savannah overshadows it. The Great Wall and Forbidden city are both accounted for but there is little sense of geography to the world and the realities of China’s spectacular landscapes feel wasted on claustrophobic and conventional settings, only finding surer footing with a mountain-top confrontation that is over far too quickly.
None of the music is particularly memorable and although the film may have found its importance by launching the career of Christina Aguilera, her performance of “Reflection” seems out of place and seems to show either an ineptitude or unwillingness for the film-makers to properly explore Chinese culture. This is also evident in the song “Honor to Us All”, the song writers’ only attempt to infuse one of their musical numbers with an Eastern quality. It’s an attempt that proves unsuccessful and the rest of the film resorts to pop songs performed by the likes of Donny Osmond. The wise-cracking theatrics of Eddie Murphy (pre-Donkey) as pint-sized dragon Mushu reminds us further that Disney’s sole purpose with this release is to entertain a Western audience, the Eastern influence serves merely as dressing.
The greatest offender within this film is the simplicity with which its story is told. It’s wonderful to see Disney tackling tricky themes like warfare and gender-roles but considering the narrative’s obsession with faux personalities and appearances, this is a film with little depth. Appearances can be deceiving, but only for the select few who champion the Disney ethos of individualism and romance and even then, only when the writers have telegraphed this by a mile.
The House of Mouse prove once more that they are incapable of challenging their audience or allowing them the freedom to explore their characters’ morality for themselves. The Hun are racially depicted as human monstrosities with even more savage personalities and dull, off-white skin. Surely its of no surprise that the studio would demonise a marauding gang of invaders, but to racially and visually separate these peoples shows that they are unable to explore the concepts of good and evil within warring times that surely history and the cultures involved are due.
Although simplistic, the legend is interpreted in a serviceable manner. Without delving too deeply it manages to occasionally amuse and excite. The visual motifs make this one worth a watch and the inclusion of darker and historical themes will hopefully be something we one day see Disney’s animations return to. It’s also refreshing to see one of the “Disney Princesses” upstaging her male counterpart in almost every way imaginable. Considering its source material’s progressive themes, it’s hardly ground breaking, but for the studio in question, its a step in the right direction. Perhaps its one we’ll see them return to one day, with them showing a little more interest in the world outside their own walls.