February 14, 2009

Mulan (1998)

FROM 1989-1994, Disney animated films were on a tear. They started  with The Little Mermaid and continued with Aladdin, Best Picture nominee Beauty and the Beast, and culminated with 1994’s global smash hit, The Lion King.

Conversely, most of Disney’s films in the second half of the ‘90s were, in a word, weak. The Mouse House seemed to rest on its Lion King laurels for the next three releases, and they all fell flat: Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules barely register with any Disney fan these days – an even sadder fact considering the oldest of this bunch came out less than 15 years ago.

Which leads us to Mulan, Disney’s big animated feature for 1998…

• In a small village in ancient China, teenage girl Mulan (Ming Na-Wen) visits a matchmaker with her mother and grandmother to uphold her family honor by meeting a man, becoming his wife, and serving him well. After she colossally bungles the meeting, the matchmaker tells her, “You’ll never bring your family honor!”
• Meanwhile, the marauding Huns – led by intimidating leader Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) – invade China and rampage across the country. Because of this threat, one man from each family must serve in the Chinese army, by orders of the emperor.
• Mulan’s father Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh) has a bad leg from a previous war, and she’s distraught that he’s being forced to go. Her father is the only man in the household, and has no choice but to accept (and he’s too proud not to serve).
• In the middle of the night, to protect her father, Mulan cuts her hair, takes her father’s armor and sword, and runs off to join the army as “Ping,” his son.
• Meanwhile, the ghost ancestors of Mulan’s family send Mushu (Eddie Murphy), a disgraced dragon, to protect Mulan during her training and in battle – both of which are led by Shang (B.D. Wong).

Mulan is another of Disney’s half-baked lessons in history / mythology / literature, much like the three films that preceded it. It has some laughs, but overall it’s a rather serious story. (Speaking of story: It’s dumbfounding that it took five screenwriters to create something this tepid.)
Murphy’s Mushu is tough to take and a bit out of place. His jive-talking is so fast and continuous, it’s nearly impossible to catch all the “jokes” he’s making. It is, however, easy to see how Murphy basically schlepped this shtick over to DreamWorks a couple of years later for his work as Donkey in the Shrek films.
The musical numbers (remember when Disney still did those?) are no great shakes. The big standout is Mulan’s solo number, “Reflection,” which was a hit for Christina Aguilera when she recorded it for the soundtrack. The other big number, Shang’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (sung by Donny Osmond) is disappointing, especially considering Osmond’s got the pipes to do something huge, but sounds like he’s talking his way through it.
TOO MANY HUMANS! I have no idea what possessed Disney – on the heels of the all-animal Lion King, their biggest success ever – to do a series of films focusing so much on human characters. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think people have been drawn to Disney’s animated films because of these films’ ability to create loveable, endearing characters that don’t exist in our world – talking animals, to be blunt. (The one perfect exception to this rule: The Incredibles.)
• Shang looks suspiciously like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who was in his WWE heyday at the time – and who now, coincidentally, is a big star of Disney’s live-action movies (The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain).

While Mulan’s message – that a girl can do just as good a job as a boy – is empowering, it’s been done before. And from a Disney pedigree perspective, the film is nowhere near any of their classics, older or contemporary.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
Mulan kept Dash’s attention for the entire film, despite him asking several questions along the lines of “What happened?” and “Why did he/she/they do that?”
• The ancestor spirits protecting Mulan and her family were a little hard to explain, but we got past it.
• His final thought? “The only parts I didn’t like were the bad guys.” (He tends to obsess about “bad people” and why they do what they do. I can see it now: “When I grow up, I wanna be a profiler!”)

Will your kids like it?
• The storyline may take some occasional explaining to younger kids, with its reliance on ancient China’s history, heritage, and code of conduct – layered with the intricacies (and sometimes brutal reality) of war and battle.
• In terms of possibly questionable content for young viewers: There are a few battle sequences involving swordplay and flaming bows & arrows, and Mulan’s army unit comes across a village destroyed by the Huns, with one character’s father found dead (off-screen).

Will your FilmMother like it?
Like I mentioned earlier, the message of female empowerment in Mulan is noble – and your FilmMother may find it appealing – but it’s been done better elsewhere. And from a pure entertainment angle, Disney’s got many other titles in their library worth seeing before this.

* Directors: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
* Screenwriters: Rita Hsiao, Christopher Sanders, Philip LaZebnik, Raymond Singer, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer
* Stars: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.D. Wong, Miguel Ferrer, Soon-Tek Oh
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy this movie for less at Half.com >>


Gemma said...

Sounds as if you're spot on with this one. Haven't seen it, but you really give this reader a true sense of what sounds like, "the good, the bad and the ugly." Great review!

Keith said...

I don't think I've watched a Disney animated movie in years. I got turned off by them after movies like Pocahontas and Hunchback. I never saw this one. I guess I didn't miss much.

NukeDad said...

I actually liked this one. The kids like it too, although, it's not their favorite. I think NukeMom and I liked Hercules better than the kids did, but if the VCR eats it, it won't be replaced on DVD.

ndunsmo said...

As I've said in the comments for another one of your reviews, this is one of my favorites and it's because of how different it was for a Disney film. I liked how it took a more quiet/subtle approach instead of making it blatantly obvious what its overall message was, I like how it doesn't try too hard to dazzle the audience with special effects and I love how it's not just a basic good vs. evil struggle and how the main characters transforms by her own free will instead of some magical curse or whatnot.

ember benton said...

My daughter is in love with this movie, she understands what's happening & why its happening as me & my fiance have talked to her about why things have to happen. Mulan is a great film for young girls because it teaches them that they can do anything a man can do & that she doesn't have to depend on a man for anything. We have all the other disney movies excluding TLM as I refuse to let that movie in my house because I hate Ariel for betraying her father to be a human.

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