Two prestige pictures, one zany comedy, what would it take to turn that fading candle into something akin to forest fire?
Perhaps the answer was… Something that was more of an action picture and less an adventure-comedy love story.
An adaptation of the legend of Hua Mulan was perhaps yet another thing that would make one say, “Why in the world would Disney touch that?” After making G-rated versions of American history and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, they were pretty much asking for it at this point, weren’t they?
Mulan had evolved out of various Ancient China-based projects that the executives kicked around, and it was time for Walt Disney Feature Animation’s Orlando-based unit to shift into high gear, and create their first full-length feature made independently from the Burbank house. Early on in development, the intention was to make the film a romantic comedy about Mulan being betrothed, but it was a certain upstart who had quite a lot of say… One Chris Sanders.
Hot off his work on The Lion King, it was he who convinced the team – mostly producer Pam Coats – to ditch the love story and make it closer to the original tale, an action drama about Mulan taking her ailing father’s place and fighting alongside the military in disguise to stop the Huns. Perhaps this was going to signal a new wave of Disney animated features, finally… A break away from the big love story musical epic- oh wait.
Mulan has one foot outside the room, because it’s only half something new. Mulan can’t be the action drama it’s clearly aiming to be, for the executives still shackled the studio to the formula in some way, not even the Floridian studio could escape it. It’s the “Disney Renaissance” elements in it that are ultimately its biggest issues.
That being said, that drive to get something new out there is like a big flame. A victim of Ancient China’s oppression of women, Mulan has to fit into a norm and do what she’s expected to do. This of course made for one of the film’s more favored elements, its exploration of gender roles somewhere, some time in the past. The way it is worked into Mulan’s story more than strengthens it, and the titular character, as she is torn and confused between who she is and who society wants her to be. Her love of her family is unconditional, but her desire to be who she wants to be puts her at odd ends with everyone. Something Aladdin scratched the surface of, Mulan dives into this and revolves the narrative around it.
Like Hercules, we have a strong first third here. The tone is mostly down pat, save for some unneeded critter comedy here and there, something that becomes a little more of a problem later on. The two songs do their job, and are refreshingly not following the route of the earlier, more bombastic Renaissance songs. ‘Honor To Us All’ establishes what the village wants, ‘Reflections’ is Mulan’s “I Want” song but it has genuine weight. Her decision to take her father’s scroll and armor is a powerful moment that proves you can tell a story without unnecessary dialogue.
There is a lot of genuinely good material that follows. Mulan, now disguised as a man, tries her damnedest to make it. There’s some good comedy there and much-needed quiet moments, and also a song… ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ is one of those songs that I think is certainly rousing and isn’t too out of place, but at the same time I feel it’s got some flimsy lyrics in spots. The songs for the most part are quite low-key in a way, as if they’re there but not really a major focus. Were they needed? Probably not, for it seems like songs were forced in because, ya know… Still had to adhere to the Renaissance rule book. However, those first three numbers are indeed enjoyable.
More comedy was also a must, and we get that in the form of yet another silly, wisecracking sidekick. Mushu, I used to find very out of place and annoying, and in ways he is… At the same time, he can be sporadically funny – because he is voiced by Eddie Murphy after all – and his selfishness contrasts quite nicely with Mulan’s selfless personality. But again, did we really need a funny animal/creature sidekick in this movie? It feels like the executives telling the creative team that they still had to play by some of those sandbox rules. Ironically, Eddie Murphy would go on to voice a character in someone else’s animated film that was really a jab at 90s Disney’s overuse of silly sidekicks.”The position of annoying talking animals has already been filled!” Donkey tells Puss in Boots in Shrek 2. Ironically, silly sidekicks like that really started with Jeffrey Katzenberg, so he pretty much jabbed something he was pretty much responsible for.
I think we got plenty of comedy with the various situations Mulan gets into, from her fumbled attempts to fit into the army, to the eccentric ancestors. How cool would it have been to actually have the Great Stone Dragon come to life, be less of a bouncy comical sidekick, and accompany Mulan instead?
Thankfully, as said earlier, I feel the other side of the film tries to tune those pesky Renaissance elements out. The crew almost nails all of the military sequences, the one exception being Mushu’s little pieced-together General-riding-a-panda contraption that fools the Emperor’s advisor Chi-Fu. Way out of place. Our last song of the movie also feels tacked on, the awkward ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’. Instead of scenes of the characters trekking through the mountains and bonding without the need of a song, we get this rather weird production number that just seems there. I initially hated it, but I’ve softened on it. It’s not terrible, it just feels like it’s there because the execs wanted a Disney Renaissance picture™.
The number also smashes right into a serious sequence where we see an obliterated village. This exposes yet another big issue in the film. Because the executives wanted Disney to stay within the limits of the kid’s corner, we couldn’t have frightening sequences that gave us a taste of the absolute terror the Huns were bringing to the land. Now I’m not saying we needed graphic R-rated or super-intense PG-13 sequences, but sticking to that G rating I think saved us a lot of moments that could’ve been very effective. Instead, we get scenes of big bad guys looking all mean and deadly, their leader Shan Yu is all looks and very little bite. The charred village is the closest we get to the horrors, but it still feels watered down. This was also right before a rise in more violent, PG-rated animated films. When I say PG, I mean 90s PG, back when your film absolutely had to earn those two letters. Nowadays? You get it for fart jokes, and the MPAA says “rude humor” and calls it a day.
Mulan does have an excellent set-piece towards the end, where our soldiers do battle with a whole horde of Huns on a snowy mountaintop. The animation and carefully crafted CG work is marvelous here, especially in a film with much more minimalist art direction. The film’s depiction of Ancient China may not have the intricacies of The Hunchback of Notre Dame or the opulence of an earlier Disney animated film, but it is very pretty and vibrant. It channels a folk art style and is quite subtle in ways. Smoke clouds stand out, looking like something out of a painting!
When Mulan isn’t being forcefully reshaped and wedged into a Disney Renaissance film mold, it sings. The story alone is rock-solid, especially our central conflict. It’s emotional in parts, action-packed in others, and generally very well-paced. The attempts to buck the trends pay off. Mulan and Shang don’t share a tender love ballad, nor is there an unnecessary show-stopper song that tries to ape ‘Be Our Guest’. There’s a near-perfect movie in here, and something bold and new that could’ve set Disney’s animation on a new path. It’s trying to walk one direction, someone is trying to pull and push it another way, with the opposer being fended off for the most part.
Cut or rethink the use of songs, handle the comic relief better, and don’t shy away from some rougher things about war. Those three things, I believe, would’ve helped amp this film up. Animation is not a kids’ medium, and Walt Disney didn’t make animated films for a target audience. Mulan perhaps is a rare G-rated film with an action sequence whose thrills rival the ones that you’d see in many PG, PG-13, and maybe even some R-rated blockbusters. Quite a feat in some ways. It’s too bad the final battle isn’t as strong, with its ping-ponging between cartoony comedy (especially Shan Yu’s over-the-top death) and legitimate danger. That, however, has been a problem since Beauty and the Beast.
Anyways, Mulan still finishes strong (minus a slapped on final seconds where everyone dances to 98 Degrees) and has a beating heart.
Did it win back a chunk of the public? Was this the next Aladdin-sized smash? Was this going to stack up against the box office gross of Pixar’s Toy Story?
Reviews were good, but so were most of the reviews for Hercules. In the summer of 1998, in terms of mainstream American feature animation, Disney was still the only game in town. The real competition was just around the river bend.
Many reviewers praised Mulan herself, but I feel she has and is still praised for all the wrong reasons. Mulan certainly kicks butt and takes names, she certainly has a very compelling arc, but… She is not exponentially better than Disney’s previous animated heroines, nor are the earlier “princesses” bad or negative. Mulan‘s story specifically sets out to look at gender roles in Ancient China, Snow White was an escapist fantasy. Most people who criticize the earlier heroines don’t seem to know much about the films they are talking about. I mean, why would they? Remember, in the early 90s, when it was cool to like Disney’s animation, it wasn’t cool to like the older films. Those were just for kids, remember? Disney was sleeping at the wheel, making baby films until The Little Mermaid!
(I’m not exaggerating, people thought and still think this way about any Disney animated movie made before the Renaissance.)
Of course, if you have never watched or paid attention to any of the films Disney made before the Renaissance, you would assume that Mulan was the first feminist Disney animated heroine. Instead, Mulan is an action girl, and while that’s great, the other heroines have their merits. Great example? Cinderella. She may not have picked up a sword and fought her oppressors, but she managed to stay positive and kind despite all the abuse she got, and completely played her cards right before getting her freedom. She also didn’t know the Prince until they danced during the middle third, and even then, she didn’t fall in love with him. Quite the opposite! The Prince fell madly in love with her, absolutely had to get to know her! I could go on, but the short answer is… Mulan was a great addition to Disney Animation’s already great line-up of heroines. Anyone who has never really watched Walt Disney’s films and says otherwise? All I say is… Watch the movies again.
Mulan unfortunately kicked off this self-conscious attitude that Disney has when it comes to female leads or princesses, the “need” to make characters “strong” above everything, or at least promote the “strong” aspect (this made Moana look unappealing to me, I ended up liking the character and loving the movie). That sort-of pushing for characters that don’t wait for princes to save them, even though Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora did not actually wait for princes to save them! Again, watch the movies and PAY ATTENTION. Okay, rant over.
Some critics, however, resorted to the usual “Disney waters down another adult/violent story” complaints. Others actually complained that the film was too “politically correct”, a term that was seemingly being thrown at all the then-new films. I fail to see what’s politically correct about Mulan, if it’s over the film’s message that says women are more than just homemakers, then that just says more about the person critiquing than the movie itself. Maybe it was just another term for “cool” folk to stamp onto gross, uncool Disney cartoon movies. I guessed the “too watered/dumbed down” saw was already overused by that point.
Did the overall critical success and marketing translate to a better box office run?
Mulan opened with $22 million, just a teensy bit more than the previous two films’ individual opening weekend takes. It was clear at this point that things were going to be steady from here on out unless a major change was made in the stories they were telling. What Mulan did have was significantly better legs than its two predecessors, the film finished up with a respectable $120 million in North America and a healthy $304 million worldwide against a $90 million budget. Still viewed as something of a disappointment, Mulan was no slouch, but it was no Beauty and the Beast. Those big, big grosses were sorely missed.
Or maybe, just maybe… The Lion King was a summit of sorts. The peak of the momentum mountain, because consider what it came off of. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin. Films that consecutively topped each other at the box office. Even if Pocahontas ended up being a good film, I still think it would not have grossed as much as The Lion King. It would’ve been big, for sure, but not that big. In box office, that sometimes happens. A film goes super high, and its successors can’t match that. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were nowhere near as big as Star Wars, that was a big “you had to see it” juggernaut. The same goes for a lot of sequels to out-of-the-gate smash hits. Steven Spielberg’s most-attended film is still E.T., without any of the re-release results factored in. Jurassic Park may have grossed way more, but 1993 dollars weren’t 1982 dollars. Pixar’s The Incredibles, excellent as it was in every way, failed to come anywhere near Finding Nemo‘s success. That film was pretty much Pixar’s Lion King, a film coming off a streak of biggies during a time when that particular kind of animation saw a boom.
Mulan did fine business. It could’ve made Beauty and the Beast numbers, maybe, if they made it different. Maybe that wouldn’t have made any difference. Who knows, but Mulan has not faded away into obscurity. I’d argue it’s more well-known than Hunchback and Hercules, and continues to be a steady hit some way or another. Even in an era where Disney can’t seem to muster up any kind of promotion for these mid-to-late 90s movies.
With the 1990s coming to a close and a new millennium on the horizon, was Walt Disney Feature Animation going to adapt and walk down some new paths? Would the cap off to the decade be a step in the right direction?