Disney finally embraces ethnicity with ‘Mulan’

'Mulan' finds love while disguising herself as a male soldier
‘Mulan’ finds love while disguising herself as a male soldier

[rating=2]Starring: the Voices of Ming Na, B.D. Wong, Eddie Murphy, George Takei, Harvey Fierstein, Melissa Alto
Director(s): Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook
Writer(s): Rita Hsiao, Chris Sanders, Philip Lazebnik, Raymond Singer, Dean DeBlois

Mulan was probably the first Disney animated film in years that I had not seen in the movies. In fact, I hadn’t seen it in its entirety until watching this DVD. And as much as I thought the animation was stunning, and the story entertaining, the film really falls short on the music front.

I was also surprised by how the film seemed to celebrate the ethnicity of the story.

Clearly, Mulan was structured to be similar to Aladdin. Both take place in a foreign country in the past. Both are steeped in the legends of those cultures. However, where Mulan differs is that it seems to utilize the culture it is depicting more than Aladdin. Virtually all the actors who provide the voices to this film were Asian, unlike Aladdin, which did not have any Arabian actors featured. Plus, the music had more of an Asian feel, especially the opening number.

Watching the behind the scenes documentaries, it is clear that the producers and directors of Mulan were making a conscience effort to steep the film as deep into Chinese culture as possible. They spent several weeks there studying the architecture and landscapes. They brought in a talented Chinese artist who helped develop the elegant and unique look for the film. Even the DVD itself takes you into the legends and stories of China that appear in the story, such as the importance of family ancestors and the role of dragons in Chinese culture.

'Mulan'
‘Mulan’

This was a surprise to me, especially after watching Aladdin. As much as I love that film, it doesn’t really use the Arabian culture when it comes to the music or story. Aside from the opening number, the rest of the tunes don’t really reflect the society. Mulan seems to be exactly the opposite, putting the Chinese culture front and center.

Of course, the most obvious connection between Aladdin and Mulan is the comic relief. Eddie Murphy provides the laughs here, bringing a contemporary sound to the story. And while he lacks any of the clever pop culture references that Robin Williams brought to the Genie, he does provide a sense of levity that is welcome and fun.

Sadly, the quality of the songs is where the film stumbles. None of the tunes are particularly memorable. Walk away from Aladdin or Lion King, and you can’t help but hum “A Whole New World” or “Circle of Life”. But Mulan has nothing like it these songs.

As much as I did not like the music, I always come back to the artwork. I was really awed by the look of this film. The clean, smooth style here is simply outstanding. From the colors, to the landscape imagery, this is Disney animation at its finest.

The DVD is stuffed with informative behind the scenes interviews and documentaries. I especially liked the educational feature that explains the cultural relevance of some of the characters and places you see in the film.

'Mulan' struggles to bathe while hiding her identity as a woman
‘Mulan’ struggles to bathe while hiding her identity as a woman

The music videos, however, are a tad lame — they also all appear to be a few years old. It’s kind of interesting watching Jackie Chan sing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” in Chinese, but not that interesting. And the song just isn’t that great to begin with, so listening to it in another language doesn’t help. There’s also a Stevie Wonder/98 degrees duet that wouldn’t be too bad if it didn’t focus on Nick Lachey so much (can’t stand him as a singer, but was actually impressed by him as an actor recently in “Charmed”).

Lastly, the film’s ballad, “Reflection”, is given multiple treatments. One version features Christina Aguilera, which I think is quite ironic. The song is about how Mulan wants her outside to reflect the person she is inside. Yet, we’re seeing a pre-Stripped Christina Aguilera. This seemed to give a little depth to a video that is, like the Chan one, actually a bit dull.

But, these videos are really the only misfire in what is a well packaged production.

Rated: PG
Run Time: 1 hr., 28 mins.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

Leave a Reply