Mulan (1998)

4 out of 5

Directed by: Barry Cook, Tony Bancroft

I was a bit worried to revisit 1998’s Mulan from a comparatively more gender-fluid time in 2020. I have no particular reverence for the film, but two decades back we still had a long way to go in terms of the way we spoke and thought about things that didn’t fit in to some cultural “norm,” and so a movie about a girl taking her place in the army in her father’s stead by dressing up as a man, produced by a blockbuster company for mass audiences, might not be the most progressive thing. However, Barry Cook’s and Tony Bancroft’s film, over a many-cooks screenplay (Rita Hsiao, Philip LaZebnik, Chris Sanders, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, and Raymond Singer) is not only surprisingly even-keeled when it comes to such things – not perfect, but it doesn’t hang on its gaffes by any means – its also strongly handles its basic, but important, “girls can do anything” pitch, not relying on the many tropes that often surround such a theme. This is also aside from maybe the most forefront element: that the movie’s animation is stunning. It’s a seamless combination of computer work and hand drawn elements – using the former to properly affect the grand scope of some of its settings and battles – and brings touches of classical Chinese artwork into backgrounds and effects without it being distracting or overt. Even more directly, the character design and their expressions are amazing, allowing for more comical silhouettes for some characters but grounded, relatably human ones for the leads, and some of the joke timing and outlandish bits are timed just right – every visual joke lands, and supports roles like Eddie Murphy’s “Mushu” that need room for banter.

The historical elements of Mulan are kept fairly vague – the Great Wall has gone up; that pisses off the Huns (led by Shan Yu, voiced by Miguel Ferrer) – but it has a respectful tone to it that gives it a tang of “epic” and not just set dressing. The Chinese Emperor (Pat Morita) declares that each family must offer up a son to the war effort to battle the invading Huns, and the Fa family – son-less – fears for their patriarch, Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh) who must thus go instead: he was injured in the last war, and likely wouldn’t come back from another. Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), having recently brought shame upon her family when she botched a matchmaking session (and doing the Disney bit by singing a song about wanting to be herself and not just married off), steals away in the night with her father’s conscription order, his horse, his sword, and his armor, lopping off her hair and deepening her voice so she can fit in to the lawfully all-male army. And also: a small dragon named Mushu. More on that in a bit.

While the overall flow of the film is ultimately predictable, Cook and Bancroft hang back in some important ways: Mulan survives and excels during this ordeal, but it’s very grounded in how she does so. She’s not automatically a great fighter, or the bravest. It’s not an easy transition, and she’s still a kid. She messes up until she goes through the training – just like the other inexperienced soldiers. Yes, there are jokes that really hammer home the “men are gross, women should be pretty” stereotypes and whatnot, but that’s sort of required initially, and the movie doesn’t stall on that: it makes the jokes and moves on to Mulan’s personal progression as a soldier. The way she eventually proves herself to the rest follows this trend in believability, making her sort of an ideal hero: you really can do what she does; you don’t have to have insane athletic grace or whatnot. And although the film does position her captain (BD Wong) as a love interest, there is not a relationship subplot. She marvels at his torso when he goes shirtless, and then that’s pretty much it until the film’s coda – she’s otherwise treated like, and respected for being, a good soldier.

As to my aforementioned caution regarding a lack of progressiveness, there are some back-and-forths about crossdressing that would likely be handled a bit differently today, but – and I am no means a specialist in this – just as with the men versus women concepts, the movie simply doesn’t focus on it. A later gag has the roles reversed, with male soldiers donning female garb, and again, we get some expected barbs about them making ugly women, but the creative team just seemed to realize that there was no point in making a big deal out of this stuff when there was plenty of material for a 90 minute historical action adventure, and so the sequence passes by without much note otherwise.

The songs: I’m not sure I’ve ever understood what the inextricable tie is with songs and kids’ movies. Yes, as an An American Tail addict as a kid, I would sing along with Fievel, but I have a pretty clear recollection – in my many VHS rewatches – of preferring the non-singing moments, and that preference has continued. What I did appreciate about Mulan is that the songs are used mostly during the lighter moments, and so they work with the momentum. Some of the narrative heavy lifting – when Mulan has to confront the consequences of her decisions – are handled strictly through visuals, dialogue, and music: this is indicative of a generally more mature tone for the film, even from the outset.

…That said, the talking dragon. I was totally down with some of the animated, anthropomorphic flourish in the movie, with Mulan’s horse being really expressive, and a running gag about a cricket (Cri-Kee) that’s trailing along with her, but then early on we get her “guardian spirit” Mushu, and it’s just like a Disney mandate that’s been tossed in there from another movie. To be fair, Eddie Murphy is actually hilarious in the role. The jokes land. But I can easily imagine the movie without the character as well; it has no inherent part in anything. It’s just a funny, talking animal, because Disney movies need funny, talking animals. As soon as the film machinated for Mushu to appear, it just felt like a mismatch. It’s good that Murphy ended up being so successful with it, as otherwise the character could’ve more significantly sunk the film.