Written by: Robert D. San Souci, Rita Hsiao, Chris Sanders, Philip LaZebnik, Rymond Singer, Eugenia Bostwick Singer, Dean DeBlois, John Sanford, Tim Hodge, Burny Mattinson, Barry Johnson, Ed Gombert & Chris Williams
Mulan is one of the last movies of the Disney Renaissance, and is rather more popular than many of the “Late Renaissance” movies- it’s definitely done better and been considered better than Hunchback, Pocahontas and Hercules, in any case. Taking the legend/sort-of-reality of Hua Mulan, it basically keeps the same general thread (tomboy becomes a soldier and saves the Empire) and Disney-fies it with some sidekicks and buffoonery, all in the name of good fun.
The movie really works, actually. I was REALLY worried when I saw ads for it that featured Eddie Murphy doing his best “Robin Williams” by COMPLETELY ripping off The Genie’s concept, and the stupid Cricket was your “Generic Cute Sidekick” like Meeko & Flit were in Pocahontas, but it avoided the worst of the Disney Movie Template (the damn Cricket was mostly there in one scene and then is just background dressing). The best scenes are pretty much all during the soldiers’ training, making the most out of Mulan’s general incompetence with everything and her goofy pals. The manliest song in HISTORY doesn’t hurt, either.
The Generic Disney Style is merged well to make the characters look Chinese, and the art shift works better than in other movies that screwed around stylistically. The action scenes are generally well-done (though not mind-blowing), and as a whole, the story is quite good. It’s one of the funnier Disney movies by virtue of coming by the jokes naturally (“there are a couple of things they’re BOUND to notice!”), in addition to throwing out some good old fashioned slapstick. The story’s a bit different because it involves the heroine actually setting out to kick some ass, and the villain avoids the usual trappings of Hamminess and Sorcery by simply being some calm, bad-ass War General. And really, how many Disney Villains can lay claim to HUNDREDS OF DEAD BODIES being visible on-screen?
One of the movie’s most fantastic moments is in that scene where Mulan fails at training, and is basically kicked out of the army. Because… that’s it. That was her mission. Her goal from the beginning was to save her father’s life by taking his place in the army, and now that she’s been sent him… her mission is over. She could stop right then. But look at her face. The SHAME she feels for having failed- it eats at her. And her sense of duty and pride overwhelms her initial goal, and now she’s found the spirit to find her center and find a new goal. It’s a really wonderful bit- that it all happens non-verbally, during the GREATEST SONG EVER, is all the better. Another great part is that the guys who were being so shitty to her in the beginning (picking fights with the weak Ping like typical bullies and jerks) end up being impressed by “him”- you can see Ling actually pumping his fists in excitement when Ping is about to get the arrow from the top of the post, and Yao later offers Ping the staff instead of tripping “him”- all during the course of one song.
Given Disney was kind of un-good about using non-white people, it was neat to see a movie full of Asians, usually played by Asians, too. The implicitly feminist story was a good example of how to do it RIGHT, too- it wasn’t about male uselessness; it was about a woman fighting against the world and proving herself worthy. Most of the men were positive characters, too- the ones who picked on “Ping” ended up taking her side by the end of Be A Man, and then defended her once the gender reveal came out! Shang, Shan-Yu and Mulan’s father were all also great characters. Mulan herself also importantly started out as a screw-up- irresponsible, impulsive and ungraceful. She actually FAILED at the femininity of her world, which is why it seems all the better when she succeeds at the MASCULINE arts later on.
Odd things: We never get a sense of just HOW big Mulan’s training group is supposed to be (there’s a hundred tents once, then there’s her small group and some background guys, then it looks like all of ten people are walking across a mountain pass), but they segue from “The worst thing EVER!” to “HEY WE WON!” with aplomb by doing it super-quickly. Man- Chien Po is FREAKISHLY STRONG- lifting up a half-dozen guys AND A HORSE?? Lots o’ thematic imagery surrouding “Reflections” here, which should be obvious given the “I Want” Song- though really people only ever remember one song about this movie.
FA MULAN (Hua Mulan, aka Fa Ping)
Ming-Na Wen, often just known as Ming-Na for some reason, got the job as Mulan after Tia Carrera & Lea Salonga didn’t work out (Lea could sing, but not get her voice low enough for the “Ping” character). Mulan is solidly interesting and stands out in the Disney Heroine scheme of things, because of her warrior background. While she shares a motivation with Belle (personal sacrifice to save her ailing father’s life), she differs from the bookish one by virtue of ass-kickery. Until Merida, we hadn’t seen a Tomboy Heroine barely at all, much less a female character who *gasp* MADE MISTAKES ONCE IN A WHILE. Disney often gets caught up in what ails a lot of the entertainment industry, in that when they try to appeal to a certain group, they do it by creating characters without any real flaws whatsoever. By contrast to this, Mulan is a screw-up at just about anything, and works like a dog to improve. And THAT is how you make a stronger role model, and a more interesting character.
About the Performer: Ming-Na Wen has been around for a LONG TIME, though occasionally you’ll see another get a big push- as if Hollywood was only allowed one Asian woman to be in anything for 20 years. I first saw her in The Single Guy. one of MANY sitcoms to get that “Sweet Spot” between Friends and Seinfeld, but fail to keep much of the audience, thus being cancelled despite having MILLIONS watching every Thursday night- the joke was that you could keep a SCREEN TEST signal in that space and drawing ratings, so TV shows were judged by how far over that threshold they could get… most failed. She was also in the spectacularly (but gleefully) awful Street Fighter film, playing Chun-Li. She was also in a handful of movies around this time, but kind of took a back-seat for a while, as Martial Arts Films were big, and she was an Asian who seemingly WASN’T good at martial arts. So Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh were bigger for a while, but then suddenly Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. comes out and she’s in stuff again. Failing to age at all over twenty years like a goddamn vampire (or… any Asian woman over thirty, really) has helped her stick around. She’s one of the few Disney Princesses still getting semi-regular work, in fact.
The singing voice, Lea Salonga, was detailed with Jasmine’s bio- being Asian herself, Salonga still fit. She didn’t really have much singing to do, though.
Mushu is Eddie Murphy’s attempt at pulling a “Robin Williams”, and portraying a popular, modern-speaking Mentor to our young hero. He wasn’t exceptionally annoying, and got a handful of good lines, but I wasn’t overly taken with the little guy. But considering how annoying he could have been, that’s pretty solid. Some of his ranting is pretty amusing (“Dishonor on YOU, dishonor on your COW—!”), and they do well by having him be a bit of a Butt-Monkey, himself being known as a screw-up (which makes him a great partner for Mulan, who has the same rep- it’s neat how they mirror the two of them). Being frequently humiliated makes the “Annoying Sidekick” character a lot more tolerable, too.
About the Performer: Eddie is, obviously, a huge star here or there, though his career has been through so many twists and turns it’s hard to tell just how big he is. He’s easily the most famous Saturday Night Live alum ever (“anyone who says otherwise is making a racist argument”- Chris Rock), and was a GIGANTIC star in the 1980s especially, bridging from SNL to high-profile movies like 48 Hours and Trading Places, making a bit name for himself in smutty, racially-tinged comedies. However, a series of horrible things would always be around to screw up his career- picking up a transgender prostitute at one point, appearing in The Adventures of Pluto Nash and others. He’s been in some of the most notoriously-awful movies ever, and Nash is still the priciest bomb in Hollywood history. But every once in a while, you’re reminded of his past brilliance- his famous Raw comedy presentation hit big again a decade ago (though people now are like “holy hell, you could say a lot of crap about gays and get cheered in the 1980s” about it), and he can still hammer out a good performance.
Ling is a Butt-Monkey who is frequently injured, and is a tall and skinny guy to contrast his shorter & fatter teammates. He looks a bit slimy and sneaky, but doesn’t really do that much with that.
About the Performer: Gedde Watanabe is a born & raised American, though typically plays heavily-accented immigrants, like in Weird Al’s classic UHF (“STUPID!!! YOU SO STUPID!!!”), or in Sixteen Candles. The actor says he was just trying to get a laugh, and took a long time to understand why other Asians would get so furious with him over behaving that way. He was also on Sesame Street as Hiroshi, a gay nurse on ER, and typically voices Asian characters on The Simpsons.
Yao is a gruff, ugly dude with a permanently-blackened eye voiced by the raspiest-voiced guy in all of Hollywood, the decidedly un-Asian Harvey Firestein. One of the first big openly-gay actors, with a voice that is equally ultra-masculine and VERY gay, Fierstein used to work as a drag queen, but one two Tonys in 1982 of the Torch Song Trilogy.
He also wrote La Cage aux Folles, winning MORE Tonys, as well as modern productions like Newsies and Kinky Boots, making him not only a Broadway legend, but a multi-talented artist who is STILL DOING POPULAR STUFF, which is pretty crazy for a 30+ year career. His last acting Tony came for playing Edna in Hairspray (which always goes to a man in drag). His gravely voice comes from an overly-developed vestibular fold, giving him a “double voice”.
CAPTAIN LI SHANG
Shang starts off as a put-upon soldier being expected by his high-end General father to train the new recruits (a big responsibility for one so young). He comes across as a bit of a strict disciplinarian, immediately browbeating the crappiest recruits and singing THE GREATEST SONG IN HISTORY about how sucky they are and how they have to be men and be stronger. Of course, that’s what a trainer is SUPPOSED to be like- tough and mean, but not without a heart. While he’s able to tell that “Ping” sucks at training, he is HAPPY to see himself proven wrong, and manages to turn the ugliest bunch of poor excuses for men in all of China into an elite fighting force capable of storming The Forbidden City’s castle and whupping on some Huns.
All while maintaining a glorious physique (the animators joke that all the women were whistling when they created him… perhaps forgetting all the times I’ve heard animators perv out on commentary regarding the Disney Dames ) and awesome singing voice.
Peculiarly, despite the fact that B.D. Wong is a Broadway-trained actor (he was also Father Mukada on HBO’s OZ), he didn’t get to sing. And by the way, did you know that Donny Osmond is the GREATEST PERSON EVER? Because I sure didn’t until I found out he sung this- now THAT is how a General should talk down to his troops. It’s the manliest, beefiest song in Disney history, beating even “Gaston” in overall chest-hair-growingness.
Shang’s training techniques are actually legit, too- instructors punish EVERYONE, not just the troublemakers, lest the troublemakers just earn sympathy instead of disgust. Smart-mouths also get singled out for humiliation to show others that they are wrong and not to be befriended. These are, of course, used by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, but to less… spectacular results.
About the Performer: Shang’s speaking voice is provided by B.D. Wong, who is most known for playing Father Mukada on HBO’s Oz, though Jurassic Park fans might recognize him as the head geneticist. Curiously, despite being a Broadway-trained actor, who can sing rather well, they went with Donny Osmond for his one song- Be A Man. Osmond, of course, is a world-famous icon of the ’70s- he and his smiling, bright-toothed Mormon family did a whole ton of musical numbers in that decade, with he and his sister Marie acting as a big duo. Very iconic to that decade (to the point where he’s seen as an instantly-dated reference, and a bit of a dork), he mostly banked on the nostalgia after it, though is fairly respected as a singer.
I actually saw him in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat when I was a kid, but I of course had no idea who the hell he was back then. He’s been seen as an unhip, SUPER-white nerd since frickin’ 1979 at least (his publicist once suggested getting arrested for drug possession to shore up his image), which made him perfect as the backdrop in Weird Al’s White & Nerdy video (“he was the whitest guy we could think of”).
SHAN YU, LEADER OF THE HUN ARMY
Shan Yu was something unique amongst Disney Villains- where the lot of them tend to be easily-angered Giant Hams who freak out, sing songs and act as feminine as humanly possible (especially if they’re men), Shan Yu is a sly, smirking bad-ass of few words. He doesn’t yell until he’s WELL and truly PO’d, and he’s much more likely to be sinister and menacing. And MAN was he bad-ass- his big hunched back, giant muscles and crazy browline with yellowy eyes cuts an impressive figure, making him a bit more frightening than your usual Cackling Villain. And he’s more of an Evil General archetype, challenging
The Emperor almost for the sake of destruction and his own ego (“by building his wall, he challenged my strength”)- he deliberately warns all of China of his advance, then meets the General’s army directly instead of avoiding them (which would have been easy to accomplish given the Sherlock Scan he and his men do of the doll from the village).
Shan Yu is the most powerful person in the Mulan story- he effortlessly beats the hell out of Captain Shang, and is only stopped when Mulan tricks him into meeting her on the rooftop of the palace. This is a guy who survived an AVALANCHE, and led a Hun army to wipe out the entire Chinese forces. And holy COW is he strong- at one point, he punches through a barred door, and can shatter COLUMNS with his fists! He’s arguably the single strongest “human” character in all the Disney Animated Canon, capable of feats that even GASTON couldn’t match! He’s only undone by trickery and fireworks.
About the Performer: One of the few Non-Asians in the primary cast, Miguel Ferrer is latino, and got his start in the 1980s, usually in bit parts, but featured as a coke-snorting executive in RoboCop. He was notably in three simultaneous TV shows at once in the early ’90s, as well as The Weatherman in the failed Justice League of America pilot. His friend Peter David named Spider-Man 2099 after him, apparently. A lifelong chain-smoker, Ferrer died in 2017 of throat cancer.
Reception & Cultural Impact:
This movie was REALLY big, though disliked in China (for changing the myths and Americanizing them)- it did about as well as the mid-tier Renaissance movies, and was seen as a bit of a return to form, though nobody was calling this The Next Aladdin, Beauty or Lion King, to be sure. Ultimately, though, its eternal legacy is the AMAZING Be A Man– a wonderfully ironic, bad-ass song about strength, fortitude, brotherhood, kickick ass and being spiritually centered. It is god-damn EPIC!
Mulan has since controversially gone into the “Disney Princess” franchise, despite being… well, not a Princess. In a pretty obvious corporate move, Mulan was thrown in there because of her race, for Disney wanted to cover as many bases as possible, regardless of direct terminology (to be fair, having the friggin’ EMPEROR OF CHINA bow to you is arguably a higher-tier thing than being “the spawn/bride of a royal”). Also controversial was the fact that she’s usually thrown into the very feminine outfits she found DIDN’T FIT HER in the early part of the movie. It’s all about the money, because it’s easier to sell dolls to little girls when they’re pretty- girls don’t typically by “Bad-Ass Armored Girl” dolls. Because of this link, Mulan is often found in Disney Parks as a Meet & Greet Face Character, usually played by the same girls playing Pocahontas- being vaguely Asian will usually help get an actress this role.
Mushu is very popular, though not as much as the Genie. They don’t advertise Eddie Murphy QUITE as much as Disney advertised Robin Williams, but they did have the character lead on of the “How-To” Animation things at Disney World. Various Mulan characters show up at EPCOT’s China Pavilion in the World Showcase, as well.
Mulan II came out on video shortly, but was pretty bad. Having watched it recently, it barely even has a real “Arc”- it’s just Mulan & Shang arguing and nearly breaking up (horribly, it’s because MUSHU manipulates them- he’s afraid he’ll have to leave Mulan once she marries into another family; I feel this really damaged his character), trying to cart three Princesses to another kingdom to get into some arranged marriages. Annoyingly, they saber-rattle the feminist “No Arranged Marriages!” thing, which would NEVER have been tolerated in this period of China, nor even been questioned like that.
Then Mulan’s three goofy-ass friends end up falling for the Princesses, and Mulan has to make do so that they can ALL get married. It’s… really silly. And no concrete villains, either, aside from some random brigands who show up once. The only really notable thing about the movie is finding THREE named Asian actresses as the Princesses- Sandra Oh, Lucy Liu & Lauren Tom (the Souphanousinphone girls on King of the Hill) played them, and actually did pretty well. I actually found them to be cute characters, but them falling for Mulan’s ugly friends seemed a bit too far-fetched.
The movie is getting the “Live-Action Remake” treatment in 2020 , though shockingly and sadly ISN’T a musical, and appears to have… an entirely different story. Like, there’s some white guy in it, and the love interest seems to have a different name, and there’s a lot of other Generals named, etc. That is if it’s ever released after being delayed several times by COVID-19.