(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
Hello internet! Man, I don’t know about you but I’m back, feeling well rested and ready to review some goddamn Disney movies! Who’s…
Okay, is it just me or has the blog gotten…sorta…Communisty since I’ve been gone?
Gangsta Asia?! What’s been going on around here?! Why does my blog look like May Day in Red Square?
Alright look, you can be a communist character or a gangsta character but not both, you’re not fleshed out enough to support two defining traits.
Second, who staged a communist uprising on my…why do I even need to finish that sentence?
Oh heeey Comrade Crow. Look, I know I haven’t been featuring you much on the blog in the last…
Wow! Really? No, c’mon, you had that cameo in the Beauty and the Beast review…
Dammit. See, this is why you have to be careful of offending communists. They tend to hold a grudge. Disney learned this the hard way when they financed Kundun, a biopic of the current Dalai Lama that kinda portrays China in a negative light. You know, like Ike always gets the short end of the stick in movies about the life of Tina Turner. So anyway, China heard that Disney had been talkin’ smack and didn’t think that China would hear it.
Suddenly, Disney found itself frozen out of what was rapidly becoming the most lucrative movie market on the planet. China only allows a limited number of Western films to be screened there each year and if you think Disney isn’t willing to bend over so far that its lips actually touch its own anus just to get a sniff of a chance of a shot of that market…well, you haven’t really been paying attention.
But back in 1997, Disney decided on a slightly more dignified way of currying favour. Mulan originally was going to be a short, straight to video animation called China Doll, about a poor Chinese girl who’s rescued by an Englishman and taken to live happily every after in the West. And that, from the offensive title to the paternalistic premise, pretty much sounds like the worst fucking thing ever. It was Robert D. San Souci, the children’s author and sometime Disney consultant, who suggested instead making a movie version of the Ballad of Hua Mulan (not to be confused with the Ode to Fa Mulan). You can read the poem here, it’s quite short and also pretty amazing. It’s a 1500 year old poem that simply and unabashedly makes the case for gender equality, depicting a young girl who goes off to fight a twelve year military campaign in place of her aged father, wins honour and prestige and returns home at last, revealing to her astounded comrades that she was a woman the whole time. So, we have a Disney movie that not only is going to delving into depictions of a non-European culture, but also dealing with the issue of feminism. Race and gender? Well surely this can’t go wrong?
Well…no. Actually. It didn’t.
You know, I’ve been doing this a while now and if I’ve learned one thing it’s this: Every movie has its defenders. No matter how little I, or the general consensus, rate any Disney movie, there will always be someone to fight its corner. There are Pocahontas fans, Black Cauldron fans, Aristocats fans and even Three Caballeros fans. Well, maybe “fans” is not the right word for that last one.
Conversely, on the other end of the scale, no matter how highly a Disney movie is ranked and rated and praised, there will always be someone who doesn’t think it’s all that. I know people who don’t like Lion King, Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Hunchback…hell there are some sick fucks who don’t like Beauty and the Beast! But…not for this one. Honestly, I have never met or spoken to a single Disney fan who does not absolutely adore Mulan. Do I agree?
Fuck yeah I agree!
Sorry, you may have wanted me to string you along until the end of the review before revealing my opinion of this movie but…really? The fact that I composed a goddamn ode to the main character didn’t tip you off? Yeah, I love this movie, and I love Mulan herself, without a doubt the most badass character in the Disney canon. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the story of Mulan, or, as I like to call her; The Death Who Walks.
But despite knowing that he will soon face the might of the Imperial army and the Horselords of the Rivermark, Shan Yu simply smiles and says: “Perfect.”
We also get a hilarious moment where Granny Fa switches from her speaking voice (June Foray) to her singing voices (Marni “Pipes O’ Steel” Nixon) and…it’s pretty noticeable. It’s as if in Mary Poppins Mr Dawes Snr suddenly switched voice from Dick Van Dyke to Colm Wilkinson.
The meeting with the matchmaker does not go as well as could be hoped (she enrages the matchmaker who declares that Mulan will never bring her family honour) but it does not go as badly as might be feared (Mulan does not kill the matchmaker for her impudence and leave her head on a pike as a warning to others).
Mulan returns home, miserable because she thinks she’s let her father down, and this brings us to our next song, Reflection.
Everybody, I owe you an apology. In the last review I implied that Go the Distance was the worst “I Want” song of the Renaissance. That was because I’d forgotten about Reflection, although I don’t see how you could blame me. Mother of God I hate this song. You know how Disney always releases terrible adult contemporary versions of the songs from their movies? Like Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle’s version of Whole New World or Celine Dion’s version of Beauty and the Beast? See, first they take a great song, remove the awesome orchestral music, replace it with some crappy synthy elevator shit and have it performed in the most bland, edgeless way possible. Well, with Reflection it feels like they just skipped straight to this version. Mulan sings about how she can’t be herself because that would break her family’s heart (and the skulls of all who would oppose her) and goes to the shrine to wipe off her makeup.
It’s just a dead, bland, filler song. I hate to say it but…dammit it’s just no Am I Feeling Love!
We get a very nice scene now, where Fa Zhou comforts Mulan and basically says “Don’t worry about it.” This cuts short however, with the arrival of the Emperor’s advisor, Chi Fu (James Hong) who’s come to enforce the draft.
Chi Fu hands Fa Zhou his conscription notice but Mulan runs out and begs him to reconsider, saying that her father has already served his country. Chi Fu tells Zhou that he should teach his daughter to hold her tongue “in a man’s presence”. And if one shows up, I’m sure she’ll get right on that. Zhou isn’t happy, and tells Mulan to button her wordhole. The Fa family returns home in silence, while in the distance Chi Fu calls out “The Wu family! The Chu family! The Tang family!”
That night, at dinner, Mulan confronts her father over his decision to go to war again. Zhou retorts that it’s an honour to protect his country and family and that he will do what’s right, and angrily tells Mulan it’s time she learned her place. And all the while, Fa Li sits in the corner whispering under her breath “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus. Please don’t make her mad. Not again.”
It’s now that Mulan makes her fateful decision. She takes her father’s sword. Leaves home without a word. ‘Cos Pops too old to kill Huns. And she thinks that shit’s absurd. Disguised in her father’s armour, she saddles the family horse Khan (Frank Welker, who’s voiced everyone you’ve ever known. Friends. Family. Lovers. Even you are voiced by Frank Welker) and rides off into the night.
Fa Zhou wakes up and in a panic realises that Mulan’s run off to take his place in the army. Fa Li begs him to go after her and bring her back, but Zhou says that if he reveals her, she’ll be executed.
Is the problem of Drag Kings joining the Chinese army really so widespread that they had to make it a capital offence? Well, anyway, Granny Fa prays to the ancestors to watch over Mulan. And of course, because she is an old lady, her prayers are instantly answered. Father Crilly, please explain for the readers:
In the family shrine the ghost of the great ancestor materialises. We never find out his name, but he’s voiced by George Takei, so I’m just going to go ahead and call him O Mai. O Mai then wakens Mushu (Eddie Murphy), S tiny bronze dragon who comes to life and says “Tell me who needs protecting, Great Ancestor! Anyone who messes with our family?! Vengeance will be mine!”
Wait. “Our family”? Is Mushu related to Mulan? Damn, the Fas were into some kinky shit! So let’s talk a bit about Eddie Murphy.
Although his career has gone seriously off the boil of late, Murphy remains, without a doubt, one of the greatest comedians of all time. Take Delirious, which contains possibly the funniest moment in standup history. It’s the part where Eddie Murphy spends a good fifteen minutes making homophobic jokes about “faggots”, and then you remember that 14 years later he was arrested for picking up a transsexual prostitute. Now THAT’S comedy!
Okay, joking aside, Murphy is really good in this, a rare post-Nutty Professor performance where he actually seems to give a shit. We learn that Mushu used to be a guardian spirit for the Fa family but got demoted after he screwed up the job of protecting Fa Feng. Oh, well I’m sure it wasn’t that big of a deal…
Mulan walks into the camp with Mushu hiding in her armour and feeding her advice like a tiny reptilian Cyrano de Bergerac. Mushu tells Mulan to punch Yao (Harvey Fierstein) because “that’s how men say hello”. This is good advice, because Mulan normally says hello by decapitation and drinking the blood as it spurts from the neck hole. Unsurprisingly, this ends up causing a massive brawl which interrupts the staff meeting of General Li, Chi-Fu, and Li’s son, Captain Li Shang (BD Wong). General Li rides off with the main army and leaves Shang in charge of whipping the new recruits into shape. Shang’s first job is to interrogate this strange off-putting youth who starts fights for no reason and seems to be talking to an imaginary friend that only he can hear.
Shang asks Mulan “What the hell brah?” and she says “Sorry you had to see that. But you know how it is when you get those manly urges. And you just have to kill something.” Oh, and then she get sinto character. With Mushu’s prompting, Mulan tells Shang that she’s Fa Ping, Fa Zhou’s only son. Chi Fu is surprised, as he never knew Fa Zhou had a son, and Mulan says “He doesn’t talk about me much.”
The next day, training starts, and Shang sets the soldiers the following task: They have to retrieve an arrow from the top of a pole with weights tied to their arms. Everyone fails, especially Mulan, who can’t stay too long off the ground before the weight of the souls of those she has killed pulls her back towards the underworld. Shang says that they have a long way to go.
And so begins the epic, unequalled awesomeness of I’ll Make a Man Out of You. My God, I love this song, at once an unironic hymn to masculine strength and ability while subtly undercutting any possible chauvinism by showing how Mulan overcomes adversity to become the equal of the men around her. This whole sequence is fantastic and I like that it doesn’t gloss over the obvious difficulties a girl in Mulan’s place would experience. She doesn’t magically gain male musculature and stamina, instead she uses her smaller frame to her advantage when she finally climbs the post and retrieves the arrow. Donny Osmond, Shang’s singing voice, gives a genuinely great performance and it’s got such a killer melody too. Honestly, I’m tempted to post the entire thing here but that may be tempting the wrath of the Fair Use Gods, so instead, here’s the Cantonese version sung by Jackie Chan.
My friends. We live in a wonderful, wonderful world.
I think it’s also worth noting that halfway through this song, Mulan almost washes out of training. Shang gives her horse and sends her home which would seem to solve everyone’s problem: Mulan gets home safely, Zhou’s military obligations are discharged, Mushu’s proved that he can look after the Fa family…everyone wins, right? Wrong. Because that would mean Mulan doesn’t get to do what the Red Rooster put her on this earth for: Killin’ huns.
We now check in with the Hun army for a scene that really showcases why Shan Yu is such a great villain. His falcon brings him a small doll which he passes around to his men, asking him what they can see and smell. They answer that they can see horsehair, black pine and sulphur. And from this, Shan Yu just straight up Sherlocks that there’s an imperial garrison waiting for them in a village in the mountains.
Shan’s henchmen say that they can now easily avoid the imperials, but Shan says “No”. They’re going through the pass, Imperials bedamned, because that’s the quickest way to get to the Imperial City. And when they get there, they will commit such unspeakable acts of savagery that people will still be talking about it in the 26th century.
“Besides” says Shan “The little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.” The purring menace of Ferrer’s delivery is just a thing to behold, he really does not get enough props for this role. Maybe it’s because he sounds so much like Razoul from Aladdin that people think he’s voiced by Jim Cummings, I know I did for ages. Shan is the perfect adversary for Mulan. As this scene makes clear, he doesn’t have any higher purpose for this war. The war IS the purpose. But then what did you expect? It’s Miguel Ferrer.
Anyway, back at the camp it seems that Shang has actually made men out of them (Montages. Is there anything they can’t do?) but Chi Fu is not convinced and tells Shang that he’s recommending that his troops never see battle.
Does anyone in this army even want to win this war?! What is this objection to having more troops?! Are you worried that having more people is cheating? YOU’RE CHINA! THAT’S YOUR PRIMARY ADVANTAGE!
Sigh. Meanwhile, Mulan has stripped down and is taking a much needed bath in the lake when Yao, Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo) and Ling (Gedde Watanabe) arrive for some skinny dipping. Mushu is understandably worried that they’ll see Mulan naked, firstly because they’ll realises she’s a woman and secondly because no mortal has seen the true form of The Death Who Walks and lived to tell of it.
Mushu bites Ling to give Mulan the distraction she needs to get out of the lake without anyone seeing her non-dangly bits. Mushu overhears Chi Fu telling Shang that his army is benched, and decides to take matter into his own claws. With Cri-Kee’s help he forges a letter from General Li requesting immediate reinforcements and soon the army is on the march.
This takes us into A Girl Worth Fighting For, actually the last song in the movie even though we’re only halfway through this thing. It’s a nice song, where the soldiers sing about the girls they have waiting for them back home. Yeah, these guys have clearly never seen a war movie. You start talk about that special gal you’re gonna marry when you get back to the farm and you’ll be eating lead within a minute. It’s the guy equivalent of a girl having sex in a slasher movie.
And speaking of things getting brutally cut short, the song abruptly ends mid-chorus with them entering the gutted, charred remains of the mountain village. It’s actually very effectively done, and the sudden change in tone is quite chilling. I also think it was the right choice to have no more songs from this point onward. The Huns have arrived, battle is joined, the time for singing is over.
Shang, Mulan and the rest of the troops search the village for survivors but find none. All they find are the doll that led the huns to the village and the remains of General Li’s army, slaughtered to the last man.
We also get an absolutely beautiful moment where Shang creates a shrine for his father out of his sword and helmet, and Mulan lays the doll beside it, symbolising how the great and powerful general and an anonymous peasant child are now equal in death.
Realising that they’re the only hope left, Shang leads his ragged troops through the pass to stop the Hun army.
After Mushu accidentally sets off one of the cannons and gives away their position, the Hun archers let fly, forcing the Chinese to pull back. The Chinese are able to repel the archers with their cannons, and for a moment it seems like they’ve won.
And then the Huns reveal just how big their army actually is.
I think with this scene you can see that Disney were acutely aware that the stampede scene in Lion King was still their crowning achievement as animators, and that three movies later they had yet to top it. With the charge of the Huns, they’re clearly trying to top that sequence. Do they succeed? Yes and no. As a feat of animation, it’s probably even more impressive. The CGI still holds up amazingly well and the image of thousands upon thousands of hun riders pouring down over the white snow is jaw dropping. But I said in the Lion King review that the stampede scene was, in my opinion, the most perfect scene in all of cinema and I stand by that. There’s just not the same emotional heft here. Partially that’s because the score is not as good, and also because we know Mulan is not going to die like Mufasa because death would be too scared to claim her. Understand, this is not a diss on Mulan, this scene is fantastic…but if you compare yourself to the stampede scene there’s just no way you’re winning that fight.
Okay, so Shang’s army is staring down at a million tons of hun barrelling towards them, and he tells his troops to try and take a few of the bastards down and he’ll see them in Sto-Vo-Kor. He tells Yao to aim their last cannon at Shan Yu himself. But Mulan takes the cannon and runs straight for the huns.
One girl. Against the entire hun army.
Poor bastards never stood a chance.
The Death Who Walks finds herself face to face with Shan Yu, but instead of firing the cannon at him, she launches it into the mountain, triggering an avalanche that wipes out Shan’s entire force and making her the first, and to date only, Disney hero with a five figure bodycount.
Oh, and the “Ain’t I a stinker?” smirk she gives Shan as he watches his men getting buried under a cubic ton of ice and snow is just priceless.
Khan rescues Mulan and she manages to rescue Shang, before Khan gets caught in the avalanche and swept over the mountsainside.
Oh, you knew that was coming, don’t look at me like that. Besides, it’s alright. Because snow is just frozen water, avalanches counts as waterfalls under Disney universe rules, making them perfectly safe for heroes. Shang tells Mulan “You’re the craziest man I ever met, and for that I owe you my life.”
But incredibly, Shan actually managed to get a lucky hit on the Death Who Walks, who is now bleeding (surprising Mulan, who always thought that blood was something that only came out of other people). Mulan passes out and is checked out by the doctor, who then gives Shang some very disturbing news.
Shang goes into the tent and Mulan sits up in bed. Aaaand then we get that awkward moment when someone suddenly remembers they have boobs.
Shan is shocked (and, let’s face it, relieved) to find out that the dude he’s been having all this weird sexual chemistry with is a girl. Chi Fu bursts into the tent and demands that Shang execute her for “High Treason! Ultimate Dishnour!” But Shang refuses, saying that his debt to her is repaid and orders the men to move out.
Leaving her in the freezing mountains. With no clothes. Nice of him to spare her life, huh?
Mushu, Khan and Cri-kee try to confort Mulan, who admits that she may not have joined the army to save her father, but to prove to herself that she could succeed at something: “So when I looked in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile. But I was wrong. I see nothing.”
Aw Mulan, that’s just because mirrors are afraid of you.
Mushu then confesses that the ancestors didn’t actually send him, and that he’s just been using her to get back his job as a family guardian. This is pretty important, because Mushu has been an entirely self-interested character up until this point. Sebastian, this guy is not. But now he promises Mulan that he’ll stick by her no matter what, and they agree to return home together.
But in a shocking twist, it turns out that Shan Yu and a few of the Huns survived the avalanche. And, because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they are now immune to avalanches. Mulan sees them claw their way out of the snow, and races to the Imperial City to warn Shang.
In the Imperial City, they’re holding a parade to honour Shang and his troops.
Mulan tries to tell Shang that the Huns are in the city, but he doesn’t believe her because she’s a girl.
Oh, and because she carried out an elaborate fraud against him for several weeks and their entire relationship was built on a dense tissue of lies and mendacity. But mostly the girl thing.
At the palace, Shang presents Shan Yu’s sword to the emperor, only to have it snatched out of his hands by Shan’s falcon. The Huns spring out of a parade dragon, take the Emperor hostage and retreat into the palace.
Mulan arrives and tells the soldiers that she has an idea, which results in Yao, Chien-Po and Ling dressing up as concubines.
Using Mulan’s pole climbing technique (I’m not making a joke and you’re an awful person) they manage to break into the palace.
In the throne room, Shan tells the Emperor that his walls and armies have failed, and that he must bow to him. The Emperor says “No matter how the wind howls, the mountain cannot bow to it”. Which sounds badass as fuck, until you remember that he’s talking to a man who a mountain tried to kill…and failed. Outside the throneroom, the soldiers approach the huns dressed as concubines, and their cover is almost blown when one of Ling’s apples falls out of his dress where it was acting as cleavege.
They manage to get into the trone room just in time to save the Emperor and rappel him down to the ground, but Mulan and Shang are left trapped in the palace with Shan Yu and he ain’t happy. Shan grabs Shang and snarls “you took away my victory!” but Mulan distracts him by throwing a shoe at his head…
…and says “No. I did!” and pulls back her hair.
Shan Yu realises that she is The Soldier On the Mountain (you will KNOW her name!) and I gotta say, I love how he doesn’t waste time with any tedious “beaten by a girl, whaaaaaaa?” stuff. It’s just; “That was you? Huh. Well, you gonna die now.” Which is how it should be.
Mulan gets chased by Shan through the palace while Mushu rides a bat shaped kite over to the fireworks tower and scares the guards away by pretending to be Batman.
Mulan climbs up onto the roof only to be trapped when Shan bursts up through the wood like the goddamned Shai-hulud. “Looks like you’re all out of ideas” Shan snarls, and thrusts with his sword but Mulan catches the blade in her fan and uses it to disarm him.
Which is awesome.
Even more awesome? That’s a real fighting move.
Mulan promptly proceeds to hand Shan his Hunny Buns on a platter, and pins his cloak to the roof with his own sword. Mushu then launches a massive rocket at Shan seeing as how, since ice failed to kill him, they might as well try fire.
There’s a massive explosion and the day is saved.
Chi Fu still wants to have Mulan executed and Shang wants to smack Chi Fu right in his stupid mouth but they’re interrupted by the arrival of the Emperor. Mulan bows before him, ready to accept his judgement.
The Emperor starts listing her rap sheet; stealing her father’s armour, impersonating a soldier, dishnouring the Chinese army, blowing up his palace, two wrecked police cruisers…before finishing with “And, you have saved us all.”
And then he bows to her. And then, China bows to her.
The Emperor offers her a place in his cabinet, but Mulan turns it down to return to her family. The Emperor then gives her his medallion and Shan Yu’s sword to prove to her family the great things that she’s done. Overcome with joy, she hugs thhe Emperor, and Yao asks “Is she allowed to do that?”
Good question Yao. No. No she is not. It’s called “Lèse-majesté“ and anyone who did that in real life would be so fucking dead. Like, super dead.
Mulan says her goodbyes, but Shang can only muster up the courage to say “You fight good” which is kind of like telling Mozart that as composers go, yeah, he’s not bad.
Mulan rides off, and the Emperor tells Shang “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.”
Back at the Fa place, Mulan reunites with her father in the garden and presents Zhou with the gifts she received from the Emperor, telling him that they’re to honour the Fa family. Zhou tosses them to the ground and embraces Mulan, saying “The greatest gift and honour, is having you for a daughter.”
While this is going on, Li and Granny Fa look on and Granny says that instead of bringing home a sword she should have brought home a man. Shang shows up and asks to see Mulan, and Granny quips “Sign me up for the next war!”
Granny Fa goes to War? No lie, I would watch the shit out of that movie. I would watch that movie four million times. I would watch that movie until the disc melted and my DVD player burst into flames.
Anyway, Mulan asks Shang if he wants to stay for dinner and he says yes and we get a very nice, low key ending…no wait I’m sorry, Mushu kicks off a dance party in the ancestral shrine and Cri-Kee is suddenly playing drums…
…and oh movie, you were doing so well. You just had to fumble at the finish line didn’t ya? All this nonsense needs is Shrek singing karaoke and it’d be a perfect Dreamworks ending. Mulan thanks Mushu for everything he’s done, all the ghosts dance to an upbeat pop number, and O Mai looks on with unconcealed loathing and contempt.
Mulan did not gross as much as the early Renaissance movies, but that’s to be expected. Those movies didn’t have to compete with Pixar after all, and this ended up in second place behind A Bug’s Life for family movies that year. It did however do far better than Hunchback, Hercules and Pocahontas. As for the movie’s intended goal of opening the China up for Disney…yeah, not so much. The Chinese government allowed it a limited release, but only at a time of year when it was pretty much guaranteed to fail. Chinese audiences were pretty “meh” about it too, claiming that Mulan was too Westernised and looked “Korean”.
- “I take off my battle cloak, And put on my old-time clothes.
- I adjust my wispy hair at the window sill, And apply my bisque makeup by the mirror.
- I step out to see my comrades-in-arms, They are all surprised and astounded:
- ‘We travelled twelve years together, Yet didn’t realize Mulan was a lady!'”
- The male rabbit is swifter of foot, The eyes of the female are somewhat smaller.
- But when the two rabbits run side by side, How can you tell the female from the male?”
Lovely simple character designs, fluid animation and that scene on the mountain. Awesome stuff.
The Leads: 19/20
The Death Who Walks is awesome but she misses out on the full twenty because…
20/20! I don’t know what I was thinking! Maybe twenty one, can I do that?!
The Villain: 18/20
Menacing, hyper-competent and bad-ass as fuck.
Supporting Characters: 18/20
No weak links here, pretty much all the supporting players work.
The Music: 17/20
Once Be a Man gets in your head, Game Over man. You’re going to be humming that when you’re on your deathbed.
FINAL SCORE: 91%
NEXT TIME: The Renaissance comes to an end as we review the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion….sorry, wrong Renaissance. It’s Tarzan. Tarzan is next. Not the Reformation. Tarzan.
NEXT UPDATE: 19 September 2013.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading!