Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: G
Directed by: Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook
Written by: Rita Hsiao, Philip LaZebnik & Chris Sanders
Voices of: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, Jerry Tondo & James Hong
During the 90’s, the Disney Renaissance was in full force. The studio had hit a streak of hits with LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, and THE LION KING. Though none of their other Renaissance efforts reached the massive success that those three aforementioned films raked in, Disney was pumping out creative and interesting projects. You really wouldn’t assume that a company known for focusing on fairy tales, talking animals, and family friendly material would touch a Chinese legend or a war story…but that’s exactly what they do in 1998’s MULAN to glorious effect. This beautifully animated film is among Disney’s best. It’s a fantastic, progressive and amazing piece of work that I absolutely adore.
In Ancient China, Fa Mulan is a young woman struggling to find her identity. While society wants to place her in the strict position of subservient wife, Mulan yearns for something more. When the Huns attack China and her elderly father is summoned to war, Mulan decides to make a sacrifice to save her father’s life and preserve their family honor. She cuts her hair, dons his armor and sneaks off in the middle of the night to take his place in the army. Aided by the small dragon Mushu, Mulan struggles to become a “man” in her military camp and keep her identity a secret from her fellow soldiers. This is easier said than done and the Huns are drawing closer.
MULAN walks a fine line in Disney entertainment between all-out seriousness and silly fun. It would normally be difficult to take any film seriously that has Eddie Murphy voicing a dragon, but that’s exactly how MULAN should be taken. Yes, there’s some comic relief, but the film has a remarkably mature attitude and vision of the legend that it’s retelling. There’s not only the obvious message about sexism and never judging a book by its cover, but morals about the importance of family, identity, and doing what is right in the face of danger. Mulan is an instantly likable protagonist who goes through big character arcs by the end of the film. She’s a heroine for the ages and that’s especially impressive when you consider that this is a “kid’s movie.” Mushu and a lucky cricket deliver comic relief that will entertain kids, while the colorful side characters provide the best jokes in the whole film. Everything is boosted by a soundtrack full of memorable and powerful musical numbers that perfectly blend right into the story. This entire film is one of those wonderful occasions where everyone in the family can enjoy this film for the same reasons. It’s a story about strength and courage that can be appreciated by all ages.
The seriousness of the film comes in that this is technically a war movie. Mulan is a soldier and though there aren’t going be bloody battle sequences (after all, this is still Disney), but there are definitely dark moments throughout. The opening of the film shows us the Huns attacking the Great Wall of China and even if you’re seven years old (which I was when I first saw this movie), you can easily guess that those guards on the wall were killed. A walk through the burning landscape of a fallen Chinese camp is especially grim for this family film, but the risk to go that dark pays off in the final third that shows the courage of people willing to rise to the occasion to protect their families and friends. If there is any problem to be found in this film, it would be Shan Yu who is pretty much played as a bland villainous warlord. That’s far from a glaring flaw though.
During Disney’s Renaissance (1989-1999), the studio was taking far more risks about which stories to tell. These new stories took us from the African savanna to Arabian nights to pre-Colonial America to France. Ancient China is certainly a creative and original setting for a family film. I imagine that it came out of nowhere for Disney fans at the time and they were all the more rewarded through it. MULAN is an A-worthy treasure from Disney!