Sunday, September 22, 2013

An Honor To The Canon?

The Disney "Renaissance" continued to chug and chug, despite the fact that it was losing steam by the end of the 1990s... Did Mulan keep it going, or did it further halt the success train?

Mulan was once again another entry in the Disney formula sweepstakes, and by the time it was in the works, audiences were growing tired of the whole schtick. Pocahontas started the box office decline, Hunchback's adult subject matter scared families away while its pandering elements (namely the comic relief gargoyles) scared adults away, Hercules was also met with indifference while also not really catching on. So in comes Mulan, displaying the same strengths and weaknesses of the other "Renaissance" features. Unlike Hunchback, the lower points tend to overshadow the good... And what's good in this film is really good.

The main story is very well-handled, dabbling in some good themes. Mulan's quest to honor her family, and ultimately take on the task that her aging father can't, is told in a fine manner. Mulan's escapades at the military camp get her into trouble, but soon she begins getting on the warriors' good sides, especially that of the man she admires - Shang. Also well done. The film actually averts one of the Renaissance cliches, and that would be the obligatory love story. Mulan and Shang don't fall in love, they don't share a tender love ballad and they don't even get married at the end. Shocker!

The characters all have fine personalities too. I won't praise Mulan herself for being a "strong" female character, because I actually pay attention to Disney films and I know that the past heroines aren't a bunch of "passive" damsels in distresses. (More on this later.) Her struggle with pleasing her family and also being who she wants to be is told right, especially through a rather successful "I Want" reheat in the form of "Reflection". She's not a rebel per se, but she doesn't want to be put in a box nor does she want her father to die. A very good lead, and the supporting cast for the most part strengthens her story while adding the necessary elements. Shang's no bland love interest, and this all due to the fact that the film doesn't go the typical love story route. The various soldiers are all fun and at times funny. It boasts a pretty good cast of characters... For the most part...

With a strong story behind it, the film also boasts a fine minimalist animation style. This was the first Disney animated film that was mostly produced at Walt Disney Feature Animation's Florida unit. It's got a smoother style, with backgrounds that aren't as intricate or complex as the ones you'd see in a bigger production but still beautiful nonetheless. This style really works, bringing a softness to the ancient China setting and the color scheme really works too. It proves that you don't always have to be big budget and elaborate to carry out a good story set in certain period. While some of the art direction could've used a little more kick in certain places, it still looks nice - particularly the snowy mountains, the charred village and the palace. The fireworks show? Great. The battle with the Huns? Heart-thumping excitement, with a massive Lion King stampede scope.

So is this a step in the right direction after the misfire that was Pocahontas and the relative genericness of Hercules? Close, but no cigar...

For all its good intentions, Mulan is held back by a lot of issues.

One big problem is the villain. Shan Yu is very bland and has no connections with any of the main characters. He's just a brutal warlord who is hell-bent on invading China with the Huns... And that's it. Who is he really? Nothing more than just a bad guy that's a threat to everyone. He's as dull as you can get as far as Disney villains go. If anything, he just seems like a stock villain because the real struggle that Mulan goes through makes for a far more compelling story. Because of that, his blandness isn't a huge problem, but a little more depth and development would've sufficed. He's got such a great design, Miguel Ferrer provides a good villainous voice and the battle sequence on the mountain is pretty epic - but these things would be even better if this barbarian had something of an interesting personality.

In fact, we don't even get a good idea of how much of a threat he really is. We don't see him hurt anyone (a deleted scene outright shows him impaling someone), and the worst we see of his doings is a destroyed village halfway through the film. No flashes of war violence or anything, probably because the executives were not allowing the artists to be a little more dark with the story - this story called for some war action and whatnot. It's kind of a war film!  There's a big battle sequence on the mountain for Pete's sake, which is still thrilling despite the fact that there's no bloodshed or anything. Again, maybe scenes of him doing something very evil or diabolical. Something! It just would've made this film, and that rousing mountain battle sequence, a hell of a lot more exciting and fresh.

Another major problem with Mulan is the number of tonal imbalances. Once again, our lead is saddled with an obnoxious, jumpy, goofy, hip-talking sidekick. This time around, it's a little dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy named Mushu. Annoying? Yes, very much so. Always there to crack an unnecessary one-liner or joke, always there to lighten the load, always there to take us out of the ancient Chinese atmosphere and setting with his jokes and modern slang. Blech. Another pointless sidekick that only exists to keep bored children interested, because Disney animation is for tots first and foremost, right? Right? The same damn model that Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame succumb to, and one that the executives preferred. On top of that, the ancestors... Another result of the film's tone issues.

Here the film has the chance to immerse the audiences in some mystical elements, after all Disney has magical elements in many of their films, right? But all of that is thrown out the window, for the ancestors are just bumbling, zany joke machines that don't really add much to the story. The magical elements of the story begged for more sequences, more depth. Why they shunted this to the side, I don't know. It's like how Pixar's Brave doesn't really sink its claws into the more mystical elements. There's also a lot of slapstick, slapstick that doesn't fit within the context of the story. Again, here we have a war story with implications of brutal violence and some adult drama - yet we have a lot of wacky cartoony slapstick. Other attempts at more cartoon-esque humor just don't work, such as Mushu fooling Chi-Fu with a pieced-together disguise. That's more suited for a comedic film, like Aladdin, not something like this. The other films of the era had this problem, too - even the superlative Hunchback couldn't escape from it.

Even the climax is somewhat wasted on comic relief, such as Mushu flaming Shan Yu's hawk, making him look like a featherless chicken and the warriors cross-dressing in order to get into the seized temple. Also, Shan Yu is killed by a giant firework. That's a little silly if you ask me, but considering how bland this villain was, it's sort of excusable because he wasn't really worthy of an epic death scene. But still, that death is just farfetched - especially since most other Disney villains of the era had pretty grisly ones. All of the comic relief, especially in the climax, just says "Yeah, we're not trying to be serious here" when the animators clearly want to make something more serious. Typical of a 1990s Disney animated film, another suits vs. animators battle that gets captured in the finished film.

Then last but not least... The songs. "Reflection" and "Honor To Us All" are excused, though they aren't spectacular, and despite how lyrically flimsy and corny it is, "I'll Make A Man Out of You" is admittedly an exciting song that gets you pumped for the bigger things to come. "A Girl Worth Fighting For" would have to be one of Disney's worst, with insipid lyrics, a weird structure and an unpleasant melody. It feels like an obligatory song to branch the camp scenes and the "raise the stakes" moment together - namely the soldiers discovering the remains of the village that the Huns burned down. Yes, this silly, goofy song stops dead in its tracks and soon we get a darker tone out of the following scene. What a mood swing!

If anything, this probably would've been better off as a non-musical, but since that template worked for the previous features, it had to be a musical. No two ways about it, ensures a big gross at the box office! Oh, and an Oscar for Best Song and millions and millions of copies of soundtrack CDs sold! Did I forget to mention the 98 Degrees song "True To Your Heart"? The song that blares in the closing seconds of the film before the credits begin rolling? Yes, because Disney needed a song from a contemporary pop band for this story about a warrior in ancient China. Might as well have Pocahontas end with the side characters rocking out to a Backstreet Boys song and then "boom!", the credits.

Despite being an entertaining movie all-in-all, Mulan as a film just falls short. It wears all the negative things people associate with Disney: The silly sidekicks, the out-of-place cartoony comic relief, the meshing of adult themes with kiddie-flick fluff and big songs. Fortunately, Mulan has a strong story at its core that makes up for a good chunk of the film's major shortcomings. What could've been a fine, stylistically-animated war story is turned into another inconsistent mish-mash of drama and silliness, that slightly reeks of the corporate side of Disney. Mushu's presence in the film pretty much conjures up images of McDonald's and merchandise and whatnot... I'd rather be invested in what's going on and feeling the film's atmosphere.

Surprisingly, upon release, Mulan seemed to get a warmer welcome than the previous three films. Was it the more action-packed vibe that the marketing gave off? Or was it the fact that the film was about a princess who went to war? That certainly seemed to be one of the main things about this film that appealed to audiences. Critics even acted as if Mulan herself was the first Disney heroine who was a "strong" female character, as they probably have never even laid eyes on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Cinderella... And if they did, all they saw were pretty colors and cute animals. After all, in the 1990s, all those older Disney films were viewed as unimportant babysitting devices while the current films were seen as films for both adults and children. Screwed up, isn't it?

Mulan isn't the first strong animated Disney heroine, as you'll find that Snow White, Cinderella and several others aren't the damsels in distress that everyone makes them out to be. Again, did they even bother to watch and evaluate those films? This is why Mulan's praise partially annoys me, critics showed how ignorant they were towards older Disney animation and bent over backwards like this. Singing the praise for Mulan whilst not even noticing the merits in the previous Disney heroines, goes to show how Americans view animation in general.

Other than that, critics liked the film, as it got good reception for the most part. The praise went towards the story, the lead character and some of the more dramatic elements - almost as if the critics excused the unnecessary comic relief and formulaic annoyances, because... "It's a Disney film, that's expected". The portrayal of ancient China got some heat, and the changes made to the original story got lots of criticism in China, particularly the Americanization of it. Mulan didn't gross way much more than the last two films, and it didn't outgross Pocahontas. Taking in $120 million domestically and $304 million worldwide, Disney probably viewed it as a disappointment in the long run because competition was making big dough... And some of it was getting better critical reception.

Mulan has kept a steady reputation amongst casual Disney fans and people who saw it when they were young. It's generally regarded as a good flick, and it doesn't seem to be one of those Disney films that has to have a cult following to keep it alive. Disney gave it a nice Special Edition DVD release in 2004, so even they had some sort of respect for it... Something they clearly didn't have for Hunchback (a far superior film) and Hercules. It was more than a modest hit though, as it didn't carry the big budgets that the previous films had - it had a much leaner price tag thanks to being smaller scale in comparison with the then-recent Disney animated films.

Mulan seems to be sort of "there", rather than being one of Disney's most popular animated films or one of their generally forgotten, not-so-popular ones. It deserves to be recognized at least, being a pretty entertaining ride with some surprises thrown in. Of course, I expect better from Disney Animation, the very house who specialized in great film experiences like Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi. Mulan is a film, like the other Renaissance releases, that wants to be something grand and something for adults. But at the same time, the executives want merchandise to fly off the shelves faster than a dragon and to get the widest audience possible by watering the artists' finer ideas down to make something commercially viable... And that's pretty condescending because it just treats us, the audience, like we can't sit through 80 minutes of animation. Pixar wisely didn't do this, as their A Bug's Life came out the same year and showed that you don't have to pelt the audience - young or old - with wisecracking sidekicks and pointless jokes. It, like Toy Story, took the audience seriously and knew what to do with its content. This does not, and the other Renaissance films commit the same damn sin.

The result is another ambitious mess, but this one comes with a surprisingly strong center and some great characters that winds up being a pretty fun and entertaining watch. Yes, it could've been a whole lot more than that, but it's still an above-average film and one that is a worthy addition to Disney's animated canon.

"Mulan" is in the third tier on my ever-evolving best-to-worst Disney Animated Classics list. What are your thoughts on this Disney animated film? Sound off!

1 comment:

  1. I thought Eddie Murphy was hilarious in this and the animation and songs are great.