Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Mulan

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Mulan

Year: 1998

Source materials : The legend of Fa Mulan 1

Budget: $90 million

Box office: $304.3 million

Plot: The Huns, who are led by the ruthless Shan Yu, invade Han China by breaching the Great Wall. The emperor orders a general mobilization. Conscription notices require one man from each family to join the army.

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When Fa Mulan hears that her elderly father Fa Zhou, the only man in their family and an army veteran, is once more to go to war, she takes her father’s old armor, and disguises herself as a man, so that she can enlist in his place. Grandmother Fa prays to the family ancestors for Mulan’s safety. The ancestors then order their “Great Stone Dragon” to protect Mulan.

A small dragon named Mushu is sent to awaken the Stone Dragon, but accidentally destroys it in the process. Mushu conceals this from the ancestors and resolves to protect Mulan himself.

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Reporting to the training camp, Mulan is able to pass as a man, although her military skills are initially lacking. Under the command of Captain Li Shang, she and her fellow recruits Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po, gradually become trained warriors.

Desiring to see Mulan succeed, Mushu creates a fake order from Shang’s father, General Li, ordering Shang to follow the main Imperial Army into the mountains. The reinforcements set out, but arrive at a burnt-out encampment and discover that General Li and his troops have been massacred by the Huns.

They are ambushed by the Huns, but Mulan cleverly uses a cannon to cause an avalanche, which buries most of the invaders. An enraged Shan Yu slashes her in the chest, and her deception is revealed when the wound is bandaged.

Shang spares her life, but nonetheless expels her from the army. Several Hun warriors, including Shan Yu have survived the avalanche, and Mulan catches sight of them as they make their way to the City, intent on capturing the Emperor.

At the Imperial City, Mulan is unable to convince anyone about Shan Yu’s intentions. The Huns capture the Emperor, then seize the palace. With Mulan’s help, Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po pose as concubines, and are able to enter the palace. With the help of Shang, they defeat Shan Yu’s men, and Shang prevents Shan Yu from assassinating the Emperor.

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Mulan lures Shan Yu onto the roof where she engages him in single combat. Meanwhile, Mushu fires a huge skyrocket at Shan Yu. The rocket strikes and propels him into a fireworks launching tower.

Mulan is praised by the Emperor. She accepts the crest of the Emperor and the sword of Shan Yu as gifts, but she politely declines his offer to be his advisor, and asks to return to her family.

Mulan returns home and presents these gifts to her father. Shang soon arrives under the pretext of returning her helmet, and accepts the family’s invitation to stay for dinner. Mushu is granted a position as a Fa family guardian.

Background: In 1989, the Walt Disney Feature Animation studio opened in what was then called MGM Studios at Disney World in Florida, with the purpose of producing cartoon shorts and featurettes. By 1993, the studio was ready to produce it’s first independent film. Barry Cook was offered two projects in development: a Scottish folk tale with a dragon or Mulan. Knowledgeable about the existence of dragons in Chinese mythology, Cook suggested adding a dragon to Mulan. While working as a supervising animator on the gargoyles on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tony Bancroft was offered to co-direct the film.

In 1994, after the production team sent a select group of artistic supervisors to China for three weeks to take photographs and drawings of local landmarks for inspiration; and to soak up local culture. Because there was no dragon in the original legend, Mulan did not have animal companions; it was Roy E. Disney who suggested the character of Mushu.

Changes from the Source Material:

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There are many variations in the story. She has a brother, but he is too young to fight. She is already skilled in fighting, and she fights for twelve years. In Chu Renhuo’s Romance of the Sui and Tang, Mulan meets the king’s warrior daughter Xianniang and they become sworn sisters. In the end, the Khan has summoned her to the palace to become his concubine. Rather than to suffer this fate, she commits suicide.

Animation: For the Huns’ attack sequence, they developed crowd simulation software called Attila, which allows thousands of individual characters to move autonomously. Pixar’s RenderMan program was used to render the crowd in the Forbidden City.

Songs:

Matthew Wilder

Stephen Schwartz was attached to compose the lyrics and music for the songs for the film, but was contacted by former Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to compose songs for The Prince of Egypt, which he agreed. Shortly after, Disney music executive Chris Montan heard Matthew Wilder’s demo for a stage musical adaption of Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven, and selected Wilder to replace Schwartz. David Zippel then joined to write the lyrics.

  • “Honor to Us All”
  • “Reflection”
  • “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”
  • “A Girl Worth Fighting For”

Voice Cast:

Ming-Na Wen as Mulan. 2 She started on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and As the World Turns. Her break out role was June in The Joy Luck Club. 3 She appeared in the series ER and The Single Guy. She played Chun-Li in Street Fighter. She is currently kicking all sorts of ass as Agent Melinda May on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 4 Eddie Murphy as Mushu. One of the biggest stars of his generation, Murphy started as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. He went on to star in 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America, Harlem Nights, Boomerang, Vampire in Brooklyn, Life, Dr. Dolittle, Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, The Nutty Professor and Dreamgirls. Younger views know him as the voice of Donkey in the Shrek series.

B. D. Wong as Captain Li Shang. Hewon a Tony Award for his performance as Song Liling in M. Butterfly. 5 He has appeared on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Oz, Awake, Jurassic Park, and Seven Years in Tibet. He appears as Whiterose in Mr. Robot. Donny Osmond With his brothers Alan, Jay, Merrill, and Wayne, Donny was part of the singing group The Osmonds. They appeared frequently on Andy Williams’s variey show, joined by their sister Marie. In 1974, he and Marie co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show for a week, and were later offered a show of their own, The Donny & Marie Show, which aired on ABC between 1976 and 1979. 6

June Foray 7 as Grandmother Fa. She is best known as the voice of such animated characters as Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Lucifer from Disney’s Cinderella, Cindy Lou Who, Jokey Smurf, Granny from the Warner Bros. cartoons directed by Friz Freleng, among many others.8 Grandmother’s singing voice was Marni Nixon. 9 She sang for Jeanne Crain in Cheaper by the Dozen, and dubbed Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember. She sang the role of Maria in West Side Story, 10 and Eliza and My Fair Lady. 11

Miguel Ferrer 12 as Shan Yu. He was the son of actor José Ferrer and singer Rosemary Clooney. His breakthrough role was the OCP Vice President Bob Morton in RoboCop. Other film roles include Blank Check, Hot Shots! Part Deux, Traffic, and Iron Man 3. He is also known as FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield on Twin Peaks. Harvey Fierstein as Yao. He won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his own play Torch Song Trilogy and the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for playing Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. He also wrote the book for the musical La Cage aux Folles, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, and wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots. His film roles include Bullets over Broadway, Death to Smoochy, Garbo Talks, Duplex, Kull the Conqueror, and Independence Day.

Gedde Watanabe as Ling. 13 He appeared in the original Broadway cast of Pacific Overtures. He appeared in the films Gung Ho, and UHF. He is most remembered for is Long Duk Dong, the clumsy foreign exchange student in Sixteen Candles. 14 Jerry Tondo as Chien-Po. He appeared in Gung Ho, The Secret Saturdays, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Circuitry Man , It’s Pat and Nick of Time.

 James Hong as Chi-Fu. He has appeared in Chinatown, Airplane!, Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China, Wayne’s World 2, Balls of Fur, and R.I.P.D. Hong also famously guest starred on the sitcom Seinfeld as a maître d’ in the episode “The Chinese Restaurant”. He is also Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda franchise. Soon-Tek Oh 15 as Fa Zhou. He appeared in Stargate SG-1, MacGyver, M*A*S*H, Charlie’s Angels, Airwolf, Magnum, P.I., Hawaii Five-O, Kung-Fu, Zorro, and Touched by an Angel. On Broadway, he appeared in the original cast of the Stephen Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures.

Pat Morita 16 as The Emperor of China. He is best known for playing the roles of Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi on Happy Days and Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid movie series, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1985. Additional notable roles include Ah Chew in Sanford and Son. George Takei as First Ancestor. 17He is best known for playing Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek franchise. In 2012, Takei starred in the musical Allegiance, which Takei described as his legacy project. The show is based on Takei’s own experiences and research into the Japanese American internment of World War II.

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Miriam Margolyes as The Matchmaker. She appeared in the Blackadder series, The Age of Innocence, James and the Giant Peach, Romeo + Juliet and Babe. She played Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter series.

Critical Reception: Although it was recieved positively, reviews were mixed. Roger Ebert said “Mulan is an impressive achievement, with a story and treatment ranking with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King”. The movie was also the subject of comment from feminist critics. Kathleen Karlyn, an assistant professor of English at the University of Oregon, said “In order to even imagine female heroism, we’re placing it in the realm of fantasy”.

Legacy:

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A direct to video release, Mulan II features Mulan and her new fiancé, General Li Shang on a special mission: escorting the Emperor’s three daughters across the country to meet their soon-to-be fiancés.

Mulan meets in the China Pavillion at Epcot. A live-action film is in development.

My take: I have a soft spot for this movie because I worked on a production of Mulan, Jr. as a teacher (Disney and other groups develop stage versions of shows designed for middleschool performers). I got to choreograph “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.”

And can I just say how much I love that song? That’s one I sing at the top of my lungs in the car all the time.

It’s clear that they were trying to capture the same magic from Eddie Murphy as they did from Robin Williams in Aladdin, and I don’t think it quite works here

Next Week: Pixar returns with A Bug’s Life