Saturday, February 16, 2013

1998 - Mulan

Even before this one begins, I feel an odd sense of change in it. When this film was in its very early production, Pocahontas came out. While it was too late to change Hunchback, and Hercules was different enough to not need it, it was a much more cautious Disney that created Mulan. They hadn’t stopped trying, but the air of confidence is definitely gone from this movie. The budget is, as far as I can tell, comparable to the last ones, but the whole endeavor feels smaller somehow - except when it feels bigger. It’s hard to explain. Really, it’s rather appropriate that a movie with duality and deception as a major theme should so often feel like it’s moving on two separate levels.

The male rabbit is swifter of foot.
The female’s eyes are smaller.
But when two rabbits run side by side
How can you tell the female from the male?

I don’t know, either. So get yourself some chow mein or lo mein, because I always forget which is the one I like, and let’s talk about Mulan.

As with the last few films, we’re in a weird place right off the bat with the source material. Originally conceived as a short called China Doll, which definitely would have been racist based off the title alone, the filmmakers eventually reached the decision to do an adaptation of an old Chinese poem “The Ballad of Hua Mu Lan”. I had assumed this poem was an epic along the lines of the Bhagavad Gita or the Illiad, but it turns out it’s really short. The entire poem is basically “This girl’s dad was called to war, but he was all old and stuff. So she pretended to be a boy, and went to war, and did really good, and then went home. And no one figured out she was a girl until she got back.” Remarkably, they’re not even able to hit all of those plot points. But we’ll get there.

Tarzan is often considered the final film of the Disney Renaissance, but as I was coming up with my eras of Disney, I listed Tarzan as the start of the new era. It wasn’t a musical, didn’t follow the same structure as the ones that came before it -  and I see watching this that it was the right call. This really is the last gasp of the formula that had served them so well. Stuff that had been taken for granted - comic sidekicks, musical numbers, a certain flow of plot - all make appearances here that seem more obligatory than natural. Take the music for instance.

Though I do appreciate an entire musical number about how horny everyone is.

For the past several films, it’s been Broadway superstar Alan Menken, except for the one that was Elton John, and they worked with powerhouse lyricists like Stephen Schwartz, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice. This movie, the music is by… Matthew Wilder? Who? Well, probably someone that comes a hell of a lot cheaper than Alan Menken. I know these aren’t names, but come on. Menken’s got eight Oscars, seven Golden Globes, and eleven Grammys. Wilder had one top five hit a decade before this came out, and one Grammy nomination as a producer.

As for the songs themselves… Well, at least it might count as a return to the good old days of Disney, because like so many of their classic films, there’s one really good song, one okay one, and a lot of unmemorable crap. In both of the good songs, the main advantage was the very clever lyrics by David Zippel of Hercules, the only non-star lyricist of the past several films. Between that, this, and his co-writing with Alan Menken of “The Star-Spangled Man” for Captain America, I’m starting to really like this guy. But the end credits song, “Be True to Your Heart,” more than makes up for it by being the 90s-est end credits song ever. It’s performed by 98 Degrees for cripes sake. And - Stevie Wonder? Oh, Stevie, you should know better. But you never do.

The casting is mostly good. Mulan was meant to be played by Lea Salonga, who you’ll recall did the singing for Jasmine in Aladdin. But in early reads, her speaking voice was determined to be a little princess-y, and she was replaced with TV and action movie star Ming-Na. Now, if you’ve ever seen Ming-Na in a movie, you know she’s not exactly burning with charisma. Oh, sure, she plays off Jean-Claude van Damme well enough, and she’s easy on the eyes, but there’s not any Oscars in her future to say the least. She does well enough, but there’s a few moments when she gets - What’s the audio equivalent of “deer in the headlights”? Her best moments are all when she’s posing as her male counterpart, Fa Ping, where she has some good comedic timing, and her slightly off delivery is nicely covered by the fact that the character is lying. Salonga still does the singing, and yeah, her voice is really different.

Guys. You don't have to cast a martial artist. You just draw this stuff.

Apart from that, the casting works well. The trend continues of good character actors playing to their strengths. Pat Morita as a wise old leader, Gedde Watanabe as a smarmy dweeb, James Hong as a pompous bureaucrat, etc. One playing wildly against type is Harvey Fierstein as a tough-guy, womanizing, battle-scarred brawler, which suits his voice perfectly, but he‘d never get away with in live-action. George Takei plays an angry and authoritative person, but I’m not sure if this is playing against type, because this is a good ten years before he became America’s Sweetheart and a professional Internet Funnyman. The heroic lead and love interest is played by B.D. Wong, who does quite well, with singing supplied by Donny Osmond, who sounds impressively like Wong. Miguel Ferrer can play a smart yet brutish villain in his sleep, but that’s because he’s SO FREAKING GOOD at it, so I was glad to hear him in this as the hulking genius Shan Yu. And then there’s Eddie Murphy…

Eddie Murphy plays Mushu the dragon, our main comedy relief. He is a disgraced family guardian summoned by the spirits of Mulan’s ancestors to awaken one of the better guardians and bring Mulan home. Working in his own interest, he decides to instead go off on his own and help Mulan become a war hero, so that she will honor the family, and him by extension. For most of the film, he’s the only supernatural element. He’s not quite as distracting as the gargoyles of Hunchback, as he does have a direct relevance to the plot. And Chinese culture has a much stronger sense of dragons and ancestors than European culture for whatever the gargoyles were. Genius loci, I guess. Still, I can’t help but feel that the movie would have been better without him in it. Like I felt with Cinderella, I’d rather see Mulan make it on her own without magical help. But Mushu does stick around, and doesn’t interfere too much, so I don’t have much of a problem with him. Except for the fifty or so times he’s clearly visible to the world at large but no one seems to see him. I guess their eyes don’t work off camera?

Not this disguise, though. This is flawless.

But it does speak to an interesting dilemma this movie has. It’s at its best when it’s being realistic. The small moments, the interactions between Mulan and her parents or her fellow soldiers, work really well. The best scene in the movie is when Mulan is bathing and her three friends decide to come in for a swim. Everyone’s naked and goofing around, and Mulan’s trying to work out a way to leave without being seen, and when Mushu aids her escape, it’s not with magic, or a funny costume, or a celebrity impression, but by swimming up and biting one of the guys on the butt. It all just feels more real

There are big moments that bring it, too, particularly Mulan’s squad meeting the Hun army. The animation is spectacular in this sequence, from the enemy horde riding over the mountaintop to Mulan’s insane rescue of Shang - riding a horse through an avalanche that she caused and trusting her idiot friends to pull off a one-in-a-million arrow shot to catch her as she goes over the mountain - is pulled off wonderfully. The animation in general in the movie is… Well, the characters are more simplified, and the backgrounds tend to be the same, but I’m not sure if that’s from a cut budget or a style choice. The influence of Chinese art in this one is pretty limited, apart from one fantasy sequence designed after calligraphy and some neat swirly explosions.

No jokes. It's just awesome.

I’ve had little but good things to say about the movie, and I stand by that, but the whole thing is kind of sloppy. The good elements don’t have much that connects them, the big finale is kind of a mess, the characters and dialogue are pretty bland. I recommend this one, but without a good deal of enthusiasm. You won’t be sorry you watched it, but there’s probably better things you could be spending your time on.


Oh, man, I had all these thoughts on the portrayal of gender roles in this movie and I couldn’t find a space for them in the main body because I wound up kind of glossing over the plot. So here’s the short version:

Mulan is a girl. I had forgotten just how girly she was in the years since I’d first watched it. If this story was about a tomboy who hated the idea of an arranged marriage to begin with and always wanted to fight, it wouldn’t have the power it does. Mulan goes to see the matchmaker at the beginning because it is expected of her, and when she fails, she feels bad about it because it was her only means of honoring her family. While on her journey, she walks past men playing games, being soldiers, farming, making art, and just generally going through a world that makes it clear that her only value is what a man chooses to give her. When Mulan enters the army, she’s the only woman we see for the entire rest of the film apart from a few extras. When the war is over, she returns to her parents, bringing the emperor‘s crest and Shan Yu‘s sword to honor her father. She’s found value in the world, despite having previously been abandoned by her comrades on a snowy mountaintop when her deception was discovered. (A change from the original song, where she was not found out until she retired.) So why is it important that she remains ‘girly’?

While the script, as I mentioned, is pretty blah, it does do a good job of highlighting the ways masculinity is prized and femininity denigrated in our culture. When Yao is standing on the rock during the bathing scene, he tries to goad the others into knocking him down by saying “There’s nothing you girls can do about it.” The commanding officer calls them girls and says he’ll “make men of them”. If Mulan had been portrayed as a tomboy who dreamed of being in the army, the movie would be enforcing that view. But instead, she finds it hard to fit in to the men’s world, and her femininity  eventually winds up being her greatest resource. She goes through the training and becomes the equal of the men, but not by rejecting her womanhood. That’s exactly the right message to send, because it would have been so easy to accidentally play this as “Boy things good, girl things bad.”

Also, while many of these films have had a man gazing at a woman in slack-jawed, smitten, lustfulness, this is I think the first time we’ve seen a woman do the same. When Shang takes off his shirt to begin their training, Mulan’s face bears the distinct mark of “DAAAAYUM THAT‘S A NICE CHUNK OF CAPTAIN.”

This, on the other hand... Well, they can't all be Donny Osmond.


* Hee hee. “Fa Ping”.

* Less impressive sing-casting is Mulan’s grandmother. Speaking, she’s played by voice acting legend June Foray, who I think was 158 years old at the time. She mostly uses her typical sassy old lady voice, but starts to modulate into a softer voice, like she uses for Granny in Looney Tunes, when her part in a song comes up. Then, inexplicably, she sings in the voice of Marni Nixon, who had a hell of a career in the 1950s dubbing over tone-deaf film stars like Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood in movie musicals. The slight problem with this is that Foray sounds like a crotchety old lady, and Nixon sounds like… Well, like someone who dubs for movie musicals in the 1950s, with a voice as clear as a bell. At first, I thought they were building up to a joke, but the punch line never came.

* Nixon also dubbed Marilyn Monroe, Deborah Kerr, Margaret O’Brien, and Rita Moreno. The notion of hiring actors who can sing seemed to escape them.

Hey, what's that stuff coming out of her wound? Wounds don't leak, Pocahontas made that clear.

* At one point, Shan Yu finds a doll on the ground, gives it a once over and hands it to his henchmen, saying “What do you see?” In most movies, this would be an excuse for the henchmen to say “Duh, I dunno, boss,” and he would point out his clever discoveries and rub their faces in it a little. But instead, each in turn takes the doll, identifies what it’s made of, where it’s from, and who had it before, and uses that to deduce the army‘s current location. It was a great moment. Just because these guys are ‘barbarian’ invaders dressed in ripped up furs and with creepy eyes, doesn’t mean they’re stupid, and the fact that they were all smart made it more plausible that a small cohort could infiltrate the capitol and take the palace hostage.

* Of course, two of them were going shirtless on a snowy mountain. So maybe they’re not that bright.

* This movie was reasonably well-received in China, in a kind of “Oh, that’s cute, you guys think you can portray our culture” kind of way. I imagine when Kung-Fu Panda came out, they fairly exploded with surprise. But while it may not reach that rather surprising level of accuracy, the Chinese culture is handled far better than the Powhatans were. Of course, Mulan would have been immediately executed for trying to hug the emperor, but it was a nice moment. She’s just lucky this took place in the days before foot binding.

* Disney was really anxious for this to do well in China, because it's a huge market for Western films, but they only let 10 per YEAR in, and Disney was on the outs with their government for doing a biopic of the Dalai Lama.

* Jackie Chan played Shang in all three Chinese dubs. So please watch this video. You're welcome.

* This movie has one of the worst animated/background interactions since the days of the ATP process, when a statue is seen painted on the background and later being held by a character, and they don’t even look kind of the same.

The Great Stone Dragon as painted by the background artist.

And as done by the animators. Do you guys even talk to each other?

* When watching Hercules, my sister noted that all Disney horses have basically the same personality. And she's right. No change here.

* In another "the sidekicks have sidekicks" moment, there's a cricket named, apparently, "Cricky" who was initially a good luck charm for Grandmother Fa, but winds up working as Mushu's secretary. It's actually pretty hilarious.

* Best joke in the movie is the obstructive suck-up Chi Fu's picture of himself with the emperor, which I shall let speak for itself:

* I was a bit unfair to Wilder when dismissing his producing Grammy nom, because it was for Tragic Kingdom, which was a pretty excellent album as far as 1998 Brian was concerned. 2013 Brian hasn't given it much thought lately, but nostalgia makes him inclined to agree.

No comments:

Post a Comment