Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Disney's Mulan

We are now getting dangerously close to the end of the Disney Renaissance era. Disney was not exactly happy about Hercules doing less than Herculean in the theaters and were not looking forward to repeating such a outcome. Disney, at this point, looked back at their highest grossing movies for the last couple years and for the most part, they all had the same thing in common: a female lead. Luckily for them, they had just the film. Back in the early 90's, fate dropped two separate projects onto Disney's lap. Disney had been trying to develop a straight to video short called "China Doll" about a opressed and miserable Chinese girl who is whisked away by a British Prince Charming to happiness in the West. Sounds....interesting? Then Disney consultant and children's book author Robert D. San Souci suggested making a movie of the Chinese poem, "The Song of Fa Mu Lan" so Disney decided to combine the projects.

Production began in 1994 with animators being sent over to China for three weeks to take pictures and soak up the local culture. You know, research stuff. It was during that time that they shifted Mulan's character into a more appealing and selfless person and decided to make the principal animation look more like Chinese paintings and watercolor art. OK, so at one point they didn't want Mulan to be appealing and selfless? What if I wanted to see that version of Mulan? Mulan goes around doing what she wants and acts like a complete jerk to everyone. How is that not entertaining? Mushu also had to be changed, though it wasn't in attitude. No, they had to make him travel sized for Mulan's convenience. The filmmakers thought it would be silly if Mulan had a giant dragon palling around with her like in the original story, so they made him fun size. Poor Mushu.

Mulan is a pretty good film. Not exactly my favorite, but I wouldn't mind watching it every once in a while. It's got memorable songs like "A Girl Worth Fighting For," "I'll Make a Man Out of You," and "Reflections." Wait a minute...that's all the songs that are in the movie! Not counting "True To Your Heart," which was performed by 98 degrees and played after the movie. Does anyone still remember that band? I do. Why? I DON'T KNOW! I remember weird things! The movie has a good amount of humor, mostly thanks to Mushu, but still knows when to get serious. In fact, this is the first Disney movie to have warfare in it. The movie also deals with the issue of women's place in society and how they aren't just meant to stay home and take care of the men. I always found the whole Mulan/Li Shang relationship to be a little weird. You know why. Mulan also has a pretty solid villain in Shan Yu. He's ruthless, evil, powerful, and has wicked eyebrows. What more could you want in a villain?

There are a few familiar faces for the voice cast, most notably Eddie Murphy as Mushu. Murphy is great in this role, as he was in basically every role up until the 2000's. Sure, he may be better known as the voice of Donkey from Shrek, but Mushu deserves some love too! B.D. Wong provides Li Shang's voice, Wong is well known for his role as Dr. Huang on Law and Order: SVU. Li Shang's singing voice? None other Donny Osmond. Miguel Ferrer voices Shan Yu, and trust me when I say that you've seen the guy before. Then we have two well knowns, George Takei as First Ancestor and Pat Morita as the Emperor. Insert Karate Kid reference here. The rest of the voice crew is mostly Asian people I've never heard of. Oh, and that guy from Independence Day.

The story of Mulan mostly comes from The Ballad of Mulan, the story about a girl who takes her aged father's place in the army by posing as a man. Fa Mulan, or Hua Mulan in Chinese, is a legendary figure that lived during the Northern Wei Dynasty. She takes her father's place in the army and serves for a total of twelve years without anyone finding out she is a woman. During that time she does not ask for any reward, though she has earned great merit in the army. She vouches to go back home and live out the rest of her days. It isn't until her old war buddies come to visit her that they find out that she is a woman. There isn't a lot to the story because it was just a short poem. The legend is pretty popular in China, even as much as the Butterfly Lovers. It was also the first poem in China to support the notion of gender equality.

Mulan premiered in 1998 to glowing reviews and not a bad grossing. Critics loved the unique animation and the story, though some described the songs as being forgettable and a drag on the plot. Mulan ended up grossing more than Hercules and Hunchback of Notre Dame, making $120 million domestically and $304 million outside North America. Not too shabby! Disney had hoped that this movie would help sooth the wounds that they had inflicted China with when they released Kundun, a film about the Dalai Lama which didn't portray the Chinese as very nice people. After that, Disney knew that getting China to show Mulan in their theaters would be a long shot. China only allows ten western made films to be screened in China, so Disney definitely wanted to get in there. It took a year, and it was released only in a limited amount of theaters and after the Chinese New Year so local films could dominate the most lucrative time of the year. Fun fact: Jackie Chan voiced Li Shang for the Chinese release.

So if you are hankering for a movie with a strong female lead, a hilarious dragon, a menacing villain, and a whole mountainside of Huns, then look no further! Mulan is a great Disney film and it's ranked up there with the other Renaissance films. It's because of this film that I researched female soldiers who pretended to be men in the battlefield. Its happened way more times than you think.