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Wayback Wednesday: Mulan (1998)

If you don’t cheer for this movie, well than…dishonour on your family, dishonour on you, and dishonour on your cow!

I have to be honest with you guys. As much as I like the story of Mulan (1998), there’s no way I’m paying $30 to see the new live-action remake when it drops on Disney+ on Friday. I’m sorry, but I’m just not. Especially when it’s coming to the platform for free in December. ESPECIALLY especially when I consider my experience watching the last two Disney live-action remakes. By the way, check out my reviews for Aladdin (2019) and The Lion King (2019) here, and here, to find out why this trend repeatedly leaves me unimpressed. However, I’m more than happy to watch the original Mulan for free and revel in the undisputed amazingness of this Disney classic. It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie and I’m thrilled to report that it totally holds up! If you’re going to check out the remake this Friday (you richie rich, you) than I high-key suggest you check out the original first. It’s great!

Screen Shot 2020-08-30 at 7.45.51 PM
Credit: / Buena Vista Pictures

Based on the legend of Hua Mulan, Mulan tells the story of the titular character, a young woman who feels out of place and that she’ll never be able to bring honour to her family. When her aged father is called to serve in battle, Mulan impersonates a man and takes her father’s place to save him.

Mulan is of those Disney movies that I don’t have as great an attachment to. Simply because growing up, we didn’t have the VHS and I never got the chance to watch it. I think pre-adult Luke watched this movie maybe four times? Unlike Aladdin (1992) which I watched approximately 12, 186 times. By the way, check out my review for my favourite Disney movie, here. Despite having seen it only a handful of times, like most movies in the Disney Renaissance (the decade from 1989 – 1999 when the studio released some of its most iconic animated movies), I always remembered Mulan as being beautifully animated, filled with lovable characters, and having an action-packed story that was hilarious, and inspiring as Hell. Turns out my memory is better than I thought because even in 2020, Mulan is just as sensational as I remmeber. Maybe even better.

Unlike most Renaissance movies though, Mulan is a lot more grounded, realistic, and dramatic. An interesting change of pace for the studio at the time, it of course doesn’t mean that the movie lacks any of the heart and humour that’s synonymous with Disney. Mulan really proved that Disney could always deliver the songs, magic, and fun sidekicks we know and love, but even in 1998, still manage to do something outside the box and evolve the types of stories they tell. Tone-wise, Mulan is an extremely well-balanced movie. It effortlessly shifts from lighthearted musical, to bleak war drama, to uplifting children’s movie. It’s extremely versatile. Though it’s constantly switching up its tone, Mulan never feels scattered or confused. There’s a clear line of cohesiveness that runs through the entire movie and ties it all together. Mulan never loses sight of the story it’s telling.

Look. We’re dealing with an animated Disney classic, so it comes as no surprise that Mulan is storytelling at its best. Sidenote, now that I’m older, it’s bewildering to me just how short most Disney movies are. Mulan is only an hour and 20 minutes long! It’s short but so perfectly-paced. My hand to God, there isn’t a frame of this movie that’s wasteful, unnecessary, or could have been edited out. Seriously, the filmmakers are able to tell such a wonderfully complex, complete story in such a short amount of time that it’s nothing short of astounding. Comedy and action are blended seamlessly, as are deep themes like, what it means to bring honour to your family, and gender stereotypes. Couple that with scene-stealing sidekicks, rousing performances, and am explosive finale, and it’s easy to see why Mulan is so beloved.

Of course, the best part of Mulan is undoubtedly the character herself. In the 1990s, Disney was on a roll when it came to modernizing their female characters. The decade saw heroines like, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, who were more well-rounded, proactive, and diverse. Mulan is just as fully-realized, being so three-dimensional that she continues to inspire young girls around the world even today. Compassionate, brave, intelligent, resourceful, and always ready to stand for what’s right, Mulan is empowering to say the least. I admire the thought and care the filmmakers took in creating her character. For example, I’m glad that there wasn’t some lame backstory to validate her strength like, “oh, my parents wanted a son and that’s why I know how to fight.” Not the case. Mulan selflessly protects her father, faces unimaginable challenges, trains really fucking hard to become a warrior, learns she has skills that are unique to her, and ultimately finds peace by forging a path for herself that feels the most right for her. Honestly, she’s an inspiration. Mulan is rad. Ugh, and being voiced by the fabulous Ming-Na Wen makes her all the more rad.

Speaking of voice roles, from BD Wong, to Harvey Fierstein, to James Hong, to Pat Morita, there’s no shortage of recognizable and talented voice actors in Mulan. However, the most memorable by far is Eddie Murphy as Mushu. In his first voice acting role, can you believe it? He’s great. To me, Murphy’s Mushu is highly reminiscent of Robin Williams’ Genie. More restrained and not as iconic, but it’s the same wacky energy and clever one-liners that make Disney sidekicks just as, if not occasionally more, entertaining than the protagonist. The sidekick is obviously meant to be comedic relief, a job Murphy nails. It’s his impeccable comedic timing and delivery that manages to lighten the mood the few times the movie ventures into more mature territory. Look, when you have a children’s movie that features the death of an entire army, you need a wise-cracking dragon to lighten the mood.

Of all the things Mulan succeeds at – and trust me, there are many – the thing I’m always impressed by is the animation. It’s well-documented on this blog how much I turn up for 90’s hand-drawn animation, but nobody does it better than Disney. HELLO, that ICONIC make-up removal during “Reflection?” Stunning! I especially appreciate that while they definitely look like they’re from the same studio, every movie in the Renaissance has their own unique style. The gorgeous animation of Mulan does what any animated movie should, and transports you into the magical world it creates. It’s amazing that even though it’s animation, the movie still manages to capture the beauty and magnificence of Asia. Man, I’d love to travel there one day.

It may only have four songs, but every song in Mulan is an absolute BANGER. “Honour to Us All” is a remarkable exposition song, “Reflection” is an “I want” song that is capable of speaking to so many different people, and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is maybe one of the most hardcore, epic Disney songs out there. With a jaw-dropping montage! “A Girl Worth Fighting For…” That one’s just okay. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.

“Reflection” is one of those fabulous, stunning Disney ballads that speak such a universal truth that when you hear it, it practically moves you to tears. When you’re able to connect with a song, and have it touch your soul and somehow perfectly sum up everything you’re feeling…well, that’s the mark of a great song. The songs and the score flow together in such perfect harmony in Mulan. Really, why hasn’t this been a stage show yet? Imagine the dancing / fight choreography!

I really like Mulan. It may never be one of my absolute favourite Disney movies, but it’s certainly a fantastic movie that is wildly lovable from start to finish. It really knows how to take the best parts of the Disney movies that came before it, and then build on it to blaze a new trail that every Disney movie since has followed. While I’m still on the fence about wanting to see the live-action remake (MAYBE when it’s free) I can guarantee that there will be many more viewings of the original in the future.

Are you a fan of Mulan? Will you see the live-action remake?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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