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MULAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Ming Na-Wen, Eddie Murphy, B. D. Wong, Harvey Fierstein, Miguel Ferrer
Directors:  Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  October 26, 2004

Film **1/2

Disney’s Mulan is a Chinese story…sort of.  Which is to say, the fact that it takes place in China and features Oriental characters is almost entirely incidental.  As per the norm, when Disney tackles an outside culture in one of their animated pictures, they do it with a surprising lack of faith in it, choosing instead to take the easy route, making the film as modern and as Western as they can.

The easy route seems to be a theme recurrent in this picture, unfortunately.  Maybe it just suffers in comparison to say, The Prince of Egypt, but when I watch Mulan, I don’t sense any of the magic so often replete in Disney’s animated classics.  It just doesn’t have the look, the sound, or the spirit.  It’s almost as though they created a film entirely with second unit animators and artists, who seemed to cut every corner just to get the process over with.  Certain scenes are rushed through with virtually no detail.  All lines in the film are hard, so that neither fire, puffs of smoke and dust, nor explosions look remotely real.  Backgrounds are given the most token considerations, always without much range of color and detail, meaning that Mulan lacks a lot of the beautiful three-dimensional imaging of films like Hunchback of Notre Dame or Aladdin.  Animals are drawn as though by amateurs…horses, dogs, and chickens are reduced to the most basic and least bothersome shapes, and when the feathers fly, they’re not soft…they look like slices of potatoes.

Mulan is a terrific story about how a young Chinese girl’s heroism saves her country from the onslaught of barbarians, and the dangerous and unconventional way she goes about it.  Here, it’s obvious that the good folks at Disney only saw in Mulan the chance to continue their predominant theme of the 90’s—that of the strong, independent woman who defies cultural restrictions.  The Little Mermaid started it back in 1989, and given the success of that film, they injected the same characteristics into Belle with Beauty and the Beast (which were not character aspects of the heroine in the original story), and given even more success, the studio hasn’t changed a thing ever since.  Even women who aren’t the main characters of their story, like Esmerelda in Hunchback or Megara in Hercules boast the same qualities.  Maybe the damsel-in-distress is no longer politically correct, but still…it’s really time for a new idea.

And maybe I’m making too much of it, but I love Asian cinema, and I really wanted Mulan to at least try to respect the culture and history of the people it portrayed.  And every time one of the Oriental characters burst into a bombastic Western ballad, the illusion was just that much more destroyed.

And of course, every Disney film has to have a comedy sidekick.  Here, Eddie Murphy is called upon to be this movie’s version of the genie from Aladdin.  He has nowhere near the manic energy of Robin Williams, but is pretty good in his own right, if you can ignore the fact that everything that comes out of his mouth further removes Mulan from its true place and historical time.  Phrases like “kick their butts” just don’t seem to mesh with the setting.

Still, the spirit of the character of Mulan is very winning, and the story, when allowed to be, is quite engaging.  It’s just that every so often, a cheap anachronism or poorly animated segment spoils the magic.  Even her return in triumph to the palace of the emperor is marred by the multitudes who bow to her…the effect is so mechanical and so obviously some kind of Xerox process, you can’t help but pay attention to it when you should be savoring the moment.  The few touches of computer animation allowed in the film also call drastic attention to themselves, when in other animated films, it would have been seamless.

In the end, it’s an entertaining enough diversion for the whole family…but it’s just a little too obvious that Mulan was a half-hearted effort…and with terrific animated releases from Warner and Dreamworks raising the bar for the art form, Disney may need to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, if it wants to remain the undisputed champion of animated features.

Video ***1/2

This is a solid anamorphic THX certified transfer from Disney.  There seemed to be no real problems with grain or compression, or lack of image definition throughout—if anything, as mentioned, the lines were a little bit too well-defined from time to time.  There’s not a great range of color employed by the animators for this picture, so many scenes don’t look as bright or vivid as they might have…but not the fault of the transfer. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is quite good, with a fair amount of dynamic range that comes into play during the musical numbers and the battle scenes.  The fighting provides the audio with its best moments, as the horses hooves and clanking swords bring the rear stage into play a little bit.  I didn't notice much use of the .1 channel; most of the bass seemed to be carried by the other speakers, though it came across adequately enough.

Features ****

This new 2 disc special edition is a definite improvement over Disney's initial release of this title.  The extras include a director's commentary, a featurette "Discovering Mulan", alternate openings, a deleted song, new music videos from Christina Aguilera, Raven and Jackie Chan, a "DisneyPedia" exploration of the world of the film, fun facts, storyboard comparisons, a very cool multi-language presentation, a look at the movie songs, plus some cool animated menus.

Summary: 

Mulan could have, and should have been, a lot better.  Disney still boasts one of the richest talent pools of animators and artists around, and a film with this much potential should have never been so obviously rushed and carelessly attended to.  My criticism is not to condemn, but hopefully, to remind a proud studio that it is capable of so much more.

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