Thursday, November 13, 2014

MULAN (1998)

RELEASE DATE: Friday 19th June 1998

Having almost exhausted the list of well-known fairy tales and folk stories, Disney began to look for other international tales. Having taken its audiences to France, Arabia, Africa, Colonial America and Ancient Greece, it was fitting that the next movie would be a famous 6th century Chinese legend about a young girl who - in order to save her injured father's life - takes his place as a soldier, and ends up becoming a war hero.

Mulan would be the first of three full-length Disney movies animated in the Florida studios, within Walt Disney World itself. After working on the Roger Rabbit short cartoons and a few extra scenes from other big movies including the "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" sequence in The Lion King, the staff numbers were bumped up, a new facility was built, and Florida became a legitimate animation studio for the company. Mulan was followed up by Lilo and Stitch and Brother Bear before Disney closed the studio down.

The journey to complete Mulan was long and difficult. All up, the film took five years to be created. At the beginning of development, a team of 10 people took a three-week trip to China so that they could absorb the culture, get to know the people and landscape and make lots and lots of drawings.
Mulan was the directorial debut for both of its directors, Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, but these two pros had been around the industry for many years and knew exactly how the system worked. They even managed to sneak themselves into the movie as cameos!

Mulan was, thankfully, a box-office success. After a steady downward trend from The Lion King to Pocahontas to The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Hercules, Mulan finally sent the trend back upwards. It still made less money than Pocahontas or Beauty and the Beast, but it was a step in the right direction; a sign that Disney might be able to become globally relevant again.

The film opens in a very dramatic, very serious manner. The Hun army, lead by the viscious Shan Yu, manages to scale the Great Wall of China, intent on journeying to the Imperial City and overthrowing the Emperor.

The Emperor prepares his general for war and sends conscription notices out to every province: one man from every family must serve in the Imperial Army, to defeat the Huns and keep China safe.

Meanwhile, in a small village a young girl named Fa Mulan is preparing to meet the matchmaker so that she might find a suitable husband. The only problem is, Mulan is somewhat of a klutz, and her heart isn't really in the whole "getting married" scenario anyway. She will do what is right to honour her father, however.

Mulan's grandmother is convinced she has found a lucky cricket, which she is going to give to Mulan. As it turns out, this cricket is not lucky at all, but Grandma Fa doesn't seem to notice this.

Mulan is prepared for her meeting with the matchmaker, cleaned and dressed in wedding clothes.

The meeting with the matchmaker does not go well. She calls Mulan a disgrace and tells her she will never bring her family honour.

Mulan, ashamed and humiliated, returns home alone. She can't help but feel that she is destined for something different than the normal expectations of a Chinese girl in the 6th century...

Just as her father is comforting her, the army comes calling and demands that Fa Zhou, being the only man in the house, must go to war, regardless of his injuries.

Mulan is heartbroken at the thought of losing her father. As her family goes to bed, she makes her decision. She takes her father's armour, cuts her hair and goes to war in his place.

Grandma Fa prays to the Fa ancestors to watch over Mulan. The ancestors awaken and decide to send the family's Great Stone Dragon to accompany Mulan on her journey. The demoted gong-ringing dragon Mushu feels like he should be the one to go, but he is not well-liked among the ancestors.

Mushu is given the job to wake up the Great Stone Dragon, but he accidentally destroys it instead. The lucky cricket, Cri-Kee, convinces Mushu to turn Mulan into a war hero. The two go racing after the girl in the armour.

When Mushu finally meets up with Mulan, she takes some convincing. But once she agrees to have Mushu as her guide into being a man, she heads into the training camp. Her life as a soldier has begun.

Mulan must now study men, and figure out how to become one.

Elsewhere in the camp, General Li and the Emperor's advisor Chi-Fu are discussing the new recruits. General Li gives command of the recruits' training to his son Shang. Unfortunately, Shang will have his work cut out for him...

Over time, Shang manages to turn this ragtag bunch of losers into a band of intelligent fighters, including Mulan, who is now going by the alias "Ping."

One night Mulan decides to secretly bathe. Suddenly three of her army companions - Ling, Chien Po and Yao - come to bathe in the same water hole. "There are a couple of things I KNOW they're bound to notice!" Mushu says. He manages to distract the others in time for Mulan to quickly escape their view.

Mushu and Cri-Kee decide to take matters into their own hands, and construct a letter telling Chi-Fu that the soldiers are to meet the Imperial Army at a mountain pass. The soldiers move out, heading to glory and war!

As they travel, Ling, Yao and Chien Po dream of "a girl worth fighting for."

When they finally arrive at the encampment, they find the village burnt out and completely destroyed. General Li and his men have been slaughtered by the Huns, who by now must be on their way to the Imperial City.

As Shang's troops ride for the city, they are ambushed in the mountains by the Huns. They prepare to die with honour, taking out as many of the enemy as they can.

It is only due to Mulan's clever thinking that they survive; she aims a cannon at a mountaintop, causing an avalanche that crushes the Huns beneath a raging river of snow.

Unfortunately, she is wounded and falls unconscious. By the time she awakens, the medic has examined her and discovered her terrible secret: she is a woman. Shang, horrified at being deceived, allows her to live as a debt repayment for saving his life in the mountains. The army departs for the Imperial City, leaving the disgraced Mulan behind.

As she contemplates returning home, Mulan sees something terrifying. A small number of the Huns have survived the avalanche, including Shan Yu himself. She witnesses them regroup and head towards the city.

Racing to try and catch up, Mulan tells Shang that the Emperor is in danger, but he doesn't listen to her. Sure enough, the Huns leap out of a decorated dragon and take the Emperor hostage.

The men try to use brute force to break into the palace, but Mulan has a better idea; a way to sneak in undetected...

By using the disguises to get past the guards, the Emperor is rescued and dropped into the crowds below. A furious Shan Yu begins to attack Shang and Mulan.

Using her wits, a lady's fan, her dragon friend and a lot of borrowed fireworks, Mulan manages to defeat the leader of the Hun army and save all of China.

The Emperor bestows the highest honour on Mulan for saving his life and the freedom of the Chinese people. He bows to her, resulting in the entire kingdom bowing to her. The girl who was told she would never bring her family honour has just become a national heroine.

On returning home, Mulan offers her father gifts from the Emperor, but they are tossed to the ground so that he can embrace her. "The greatest gift and honour," he says, "is having you for a daughter." Suddenly, Shang arrives to visit. Could there be a future together for these two heroes...? Grandma Fa certainly hopes so!

Meanwhile, the Fa ancestors have to admit that Mushu did a good job and they promote him to the position he has wanted all along.

IRVYNE: The storytelling and the scene pacing of Mulan is really, really great. Some of the best Disney has ever done. One of my favourite sequences is "Mulan's Decision," where she's sitting in the pouring rain, heartbroken, feeling helpless. Then the music and the animation show us that she is about to make a decision that will alter the rest of her life. All of this happens without a word of dialogue, and it's a magical scene.

I love that as well as thundering along with the main plot, the film isn't afraid to take a breath every now and again either. One example is the skinny-dipping scene which is just hilarious, and entirely unexpected on a first viewing. The humour hits 100%, but the film can switch tone on a dime. Notice how the funny and goofy "Girl Worth Fighting For" song is cut off before the final note is even sung, and suddenly we're looking at a village that has been destroyed and all of its citizens murdered.
I would say that overall Mulan is just as funny as Hercules (if not funnier) but it also really nails the dramatic moments AND the big action scenes. The battle in the snow is just a masterpiece of cinema. The pacing, the music, the animation, I cannot find a single fault with that entire sequence.
There isn't a dull character in this movie either. Mulan is a fierce but flawed young woman who you can't help but cheer for throughout the whole story. I know that Eddie Murphy might be an acquired taste, but I find the little red dragon hilarious, especially when paired up with the cheeky little cricket.

Apart from the very odd ending which feels like the screen goes black before the scene has actually finished, I think everything about the story and characters works superbly in Mulan.

Mulan certainly looks nothing like any other Disney movie. This is deliberate. And it's fantastic. It took the team a long time to define the film's visual style. They knew they didn't want it to look like any of the previous films and they wanted to give it a distinctively Chinese look, but it wasn't until Production Designer Hans Bacher came on board that they really found the style they were looking for. Taking inspiration from ancient Chinese paintings, Mulan's backgrounds feature large empty spaces, big shapes, very particular colours and a distinct lack of detail.

While Bacher took charge of the backgrounds and the film's overall tone, it was Character Designer Chen-Yi Chang who took charge of how the characters would look. Chang, who had grown up in Taiwan hearing the tales of the legend of Fa Mulan all throughout his childhood, also took the "less-is-more" approach, keeping the line work very simple and straightforward, avoiding unnecessary detail. This proved difficult for artists who had just come from working on The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the more detail the better! But this style works together to create a look that is specifically Chinese and specifically Mulan. No other animated movie shares a similar visual style. The phrase the team used to describe their goal was "poetic simplicity."

An interesting side-note: famed composer Stephen Schwartz, who is known for writing Pippin, Godspell and Wicked, as well as the lyrics for Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was hired to write the songs for Mulan. He actually began writing and was enjoying the project, but the big-wigs at Disney discovered that Stephen was actually a double agent!

Jeffrey Katzenberg had left Disney in 1994 after a bitter feud with Michael Eisner, and subsequently helped create Dreamworks and served as its head of animation. The first Dreamworks film, due to come out the same year as Mulan, was The Prince of Egypt. And who was writing the songs for that? Stephen Schwartz!

Schwartz was told by Disney that he could not work on Mulan while he was liasing with the enemy at the same time. So Stephen packed his things and left. This is what he wrote on his website forums some years back:

"I was of course extremely disappointed to be replaced as songwriter of Mulan, because I thought it was a wonderful story and I was very happy with the songs I had written for the film thus far. But it was a political situation I had no control over. And certainly Mulan was a successful and well-received film without my involvement... The two songs I had completed for Mulan were a song called "China Doll," which more or less corresponds to the scene in the film in which Mulan goes to the Matchmaker... and a song called "Written In Stone," during the course of which she gets into soldier's clothing and rides her horse off to join the army. I had begun work on two other songs, "Destiny," which would have been the opening number for the film, and "We'll Make A Man Out Of You," to be sung when she is trying to learn to be a soldier, but neither of those was far enough along to be demo-ed."
In a bizarre twist of irony, "Written In Stone" has been included in the stage-version "Mulan Jr." which companies can hire to produce. Here is Lea Salonga singing the beautiful song.

But in the end, Schwartz's Mulan never happened. Instead, Disney hired lyricist David Zippel, fresh off writing the lyrics to Hercules, and 80s pop star Matthew Wilder. Wilder was an odd choice. To be honest, most people hadn't heard much of him since "Break My Stride" in 1983, and didn't know how he would go as a Disney composer...

As it turns out though, Wilder proved to be a fantastic song-writer and collaborator. The songs of Mulan, while not as theatrical as Stephen Schwartz's would have undoubtedly been, are catchy, meaningful and suitable.

"Honour To Us All" tells a lot of the important plot information about the ancient Chinese culture and the duty of women. "Reflection" is the main ballad and theme-song for the movie. It's a beautiful, sad song that many girls have loved to sing since 1998. "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" is the army training montage. It's catchy pop at its best, with a strong military march to keep it pumping along. It's my favourite song on the soundtrack. The final song is "A Girl Worth Fighting For," which is a bit of fun, but relatively unmemorable. It's interesting that there are no songs in the film's third act, except for a brief reprise of "I'll Make A Man Out Of You."

Musically, Mulan is clearly not supposed to be a stage-show in the same way as the Menken classics, and that's fine. It uses the much more pop-orientated songs to build the character and give the film some wonderful flavours. The songs are really great. Oddly enough, Matthew Wilder has hardly been heard of since Mulan. He and Zippel created a stage show based on the book "A Little Princess," but it has so far only had a limited run in Seattle.

Mulan's score, which was written by Jerry Goldsmith, is absolutely superb. Taking inspiration from Chinese scales and instruments, it contains so much emotion, so much feeling! I would say it is one of the best standalone scores for a Disney movie ever, up there with Hans Zimmer's Lion King and Alan Menken's Hunchback of Notre Dame. Sadly, Goldsmith would pass away only 6 years after Mulan's release.

Wonderful wonderful wonderful. I loved this film when I first saw it, and I love it just as much today. The stunning artwork, the beautiful music, the memorable characters and the really strong and original story make this a classic for the ages. This film went to prove that the Renaissance of Disney was not over yet!
WENDY: I'd forgotten how much I love this film. It's been a while since I last saw it.

MALEFICENT: I also love this movie. But it annoys me that Mulan has been added to the Disney Princesses group when she is not a princess. Not at all. She is a peasant who pretends to be a warrior. She was never, ever a princess.

ANNA: Old Grandma Fa is so sassy!

WENDY: Dirty old Grandma. She reminds me of Grandmother Willow in human form.

RAPUNZEL: I love Mulan's three army friends. They remind me a bit of the three fairies in Sleeping Beauty.
IRVYNE: I could listen to Harvey Fierstien's voice all day.

HAKU: The only thing I can't stand is the stupid dog. It's so unnecessary! It doesn't look like it belongs in this film at all. Like, it's got a completely different design.

IRVYNE: Well, at least it's only in the movie for a minute or two.

RAPUNZEL: It's a really well-rounded movie. The humour is perfectly balanced with the drama.

PASCAL: It's got the comedy, it's got the action, and it's got just a little bit of romance; just enough to satisfy the romantics in the audience.

WENDY: The romance isn't her motivation though, and that's important to this story. Everything she does is for the love of her father.

IRVYNE: That's right, she doesn't go to war just to prove girl power. She knows it's the only way to keep her father alive.

RAPUNZEL: She's such a strong female character. Such a good role-model for girls.

IRVYNE: She really is. And while that's fantastic to see in 1998, it must have seemed like an absolute fantasy 1500 years ago when the story was written, that a woman could join the army and become a war hero!

MALEFICENT: She is a really likable and admirable character. She's brave, right from the very beginning, like when she runs out into the street and tries to reason with the army men. She doesn't think about whether she's dishonouring her father, she just wants to save his life.

HAKU: And she stays courageous and remains true to herself. Instead of changing herself throughout the story, things change around her.

WENDY: Yes. And that's so important for little girls to see.

IRVYNE: I remember hearing what the directors of the 90s were saying about this "new generation" of Disney princesses. They said that in the old movies, the Cinderellas, Snow Whites, Sleeping Beauties... things HAPPENED to them. They were very REactive. The new generation, they wanted to make PROactive. They would be girls who take control of their own destinies and make things happen around them.

WENDY: They all still seem to need a man at the end though.

MALEFICENT: Mulan doesn't. She SAVED her man!

IRVYNE: I think he needs her more than she needs him!

RAPUNZEL: Did you notice all the sexism towards men in this movie...? It's really fantastic! Haha!

IRVYNE: Just for something different, eh?

PASCAL: It's so great that the only way they can break into the palace at the end is by dressing up as women! Mulan has to become a boy to save her father, but the other soldiers have to become girls to save the Emperor.

WENDY: Isn't Shan Yu a great villain? And he's got those sharp canines again. He must be the bad guy!

IRVYNE: He is great. He's so uncomplicated. I mean, you could write a whole book on what's going on inside Frollo's head, and Hades is hilarious with his temper tantrums and smooth talking. Shan Yu is just mean. He's a conqueror. He knows what he wants, and pity help whoever stands in his way.

MALEFICENT: And he has yellow eyes, so you KNOW he's bad.

WENDY: And claws!

RAPUNZEL: And amazing eyebrows.

HAKU: Do you remember, at the start where they all started climbing up over the wall, I said, "There's HUNdreds of them!"

ALL: *groan*

SHENZI: Eddie Murphy has such an iconic voice. Mushu is amazing.

IRVYNE: I remember being baffled when I read about this film long before it came out. Eddie Murphy?? He's not even the slightest bit Chinese! But somehow it just works. Mushu is just a really fun character.

ANNA: There are a few lines he says that just make me think of the Little Donkey from Shrek.

IRVYNE: Yeah, they're pretty much the same character: comic relief sidekick. I think Mushu is a better character though, he has more depth to him, instead of just being an annoying foil for the hero.

MALEFICENT: You know what? I hate Mushu. Hate him to pieces!

ALL: *gasp*

MALEFICENT: I do love Eddie Murphy. But that character shouldn't have been put in the movie. He's really annoying. And it's all his fault that Mulan gets discovered, because it's him who blows off that cannon and starts the fighting. Apart from that, he does nothing!

IRVYNE: That's not true! He helps Mulan gain some confidence and he teaches her about men. And he gets Cri-Kee to type a letter and he hands it to Chi-Fu while riding a panda!
MALEFICENT: Haha. I love that scene! I laugh every time the panda just walks up the tree!

IRVYNE: I can remember the entire cinema losing the plot, laughing at that when I first saw it.

MALEFICENT: There are lots of random quick little bits of humour like that in Mulan. I love how the lucky cricket isn't lucky for anybody except for himself. He uses up all of his luck on keeping himself alive.

ANNA: I like the Emperor. He has a really cool mustache.

RAPUNZEL: I love the look he gives Shang at the end when he says, "You don't meet a girl like that every dynasty!"

IRVYNE: The Emperor was played by Pat "Mr. Miyagi" Morita, who - ironically - was Japanese.

MALEFICENT: It's amazing how all of China can hear him when he speaks from his steps.

IRVYNE: I think they were just really good at disguising the mics and speakers.

WENDY: Maybe they just transmitted all of his messages through Chinese Whispers! HA!

HAKU: Kudos to Disney for including a skinny-dipping scene.

MALEFICENT: A hilarious skinny-dipping scene! How often have you seen THAT in an animated movie before?

IRVYNE: I think that's one of the things that makes this film stand out. It does a lot of things that had never been done before in animation. Massive war scenes. Skinny-dipping. Feminist issues. It really stands alone, which is brilliant.
WENDY: I like the designs in this much better than Hercules.

IRVYNE: It's a lot more stylish and a lot less garish, isn't it? You can tell that so much thought was put into the design of every single shot.

WENDY: It really captures the Chinese flavour. I love the curly smoke.

MALEFICENT: The style is beautiful. It's set up right at the beginning, when you see the ink on the paper. As soon as you see that, you know this is going to be something different.

HAKU: I don't think the song at the end ("True To Your Heart") fits the film at all.

IRVYNE: 98 Degrees and Stevie Wonder?? Not fit with an ancient Chinese legend? Preposterous!

RAPUNZEL: It's so 90s Boy-Band! I won't lie. I love it.

ANNA: And it's followed by Christina Aguilera's version of "Reflection." Which is much better than the one in the movie.

IRVYNE: Nooooooo. Take that back!

WENDY: Too much warbling.

IRVYNE: That's right. Just stick to the melody, Christina! If Lea Salonga can do it, so can you! Interestingly, that was the song that got Christina her first recording contract. When she sang for the Mulan credits she was just a girl from the Disney Channel in America.

MALEFICENT: "Reflection" really is a beautiful song.

PASCAL: My favourite song is "I'll Make A Man Out Of You."

IRVYNE: Yeah, I think that's everyone's favourite. It's an awesome song. I think anyone could pick that up and sing it very quickly. When I was working at Blockbuster Video, one of my work colleagues would put that song up on the T.V.s in the store, and just play it over and over again. I think a customer ended up complaining! Haha!

WENDY: I'd pretty much forgotten about the "Girl Worth Fighting For" song.

IRVYNE: Yeah. It's not a bad song, but it's the least memorable in the movie. I really do like the music in Mulan, but one part of me would really love to have heard what Stephen Schwartz's version of it would sound like.

MALEFICENT: The songs are good, but the background music is really beautiful.

 IRVYNE: Agreed. So how do we rate Mulan against other Disneys?

PASCAL: Well I'd rate it higher than Hercules.

MALEFICENT: It's a "medium" one for me. I just think there are other Disney movies with better stories. It's not one I would pick out again and again.

ANNA: It's high on my list. I think it would be somewhere just beneath my Top 3.
HAKU: I would still put Aladdin above this.
IRVYNE: I think I would too, but for me, it's right up there. I think it's one of the top contenders.


1 comment:

  1. lol mulan is my most favorite movie of all times