“Here be drag-ons…”
Disney movies are not the usual place to find action heroines: their classic woman is a princess, who sits in a castle and waits for someone of appropriately-royal blood to come and rescue her from whatever evil fate (wicked stepmother, poisoned spinning wheel, etc.) that has befallen her.
The first inklings of a change to this traditional attitude came in 1991 with Beauty and the Beast, where Belle was an independent-minded young lady who rejected the advances of the handsomely square-jawed hero, because he was an idiotic jerk. Unfortunately, the moral was somewhat diluted by the end when – and I trust I’m not spoiling this for anyone – the Beast turns into a rather convincing facsimile of said handsomely square-jawed hero. So, looks are everything, after all… Much more successful was their 1998 attempt, Mulan, recently released for the first time on DVD, which took a traditional Chinese legend about a girl who dresses as a man to join the army, and converted it into the traditional Disney animated feature format, complete with songs and amusing sidekick. Given the studio’s previous track record (hey, why bother paying writers to come up with new stories, when there’s public domain ones to rape?), qualms here are understandable. Perhaps most memorably, Disney gave Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid a happy ending, though turning Quasimodo into a lovable Happy Meal probably comes close – that whirring sound you hear is Victor Hugo spinning in his grave.
And, yes, liberties were taken, though to be fair, you expect this in any screenplay – especially one whose story originally appeared in a poem written by an anonymous Chinese author around the 5th or 6th century AD. [See one translation. The poem also appears on the DVD, but without any attribution or context; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written by a Mousketeer] From here sprang a whole raft of tales, with different eras, locations or surnames, largely dependent on the author’s feelings, but having several common threads. The story takes place over more than a decade, and Mulan’s identity isn’t discovered until she has finally returned home and resumed her normal life.
There’s also no threat of execution when her deception is found out – Chinese culture may perhaps actually have a more tolerant approach to such things, though this is admittedly going only by the likes of Peking Opera, and a good chunk of Brigitte Lin’s career. And, of course, both the romantic angle and amusing sidekick were modern additions. This contrasts sharply with one version of the original, which has the Emperor hearing of Mulan’s exploits, and demanding she becomes his concubine. Mulan commits suicide in preference to this fate, an ending that, for some reason, didn’t make it into the Disney adaptation…
Perhaps the surprising thing is that there haven’t been more movie adaptations of the story – contrast the literally hundreds of movies based on Wong Fei-Hung. There have been a couple, most notably 1960’s The Lady General Hua Mu Lan, directed by Yue Fung, and starring Ling Buo as Mulan (real-life husband Jing Han played General Li). Before that was Maiden in Armor starring Nancy Chan, made in 1937, largely as propaganda to rally the Chinese against the Japanese. The most recent version was in 1999; Yang Pei-Pei’s 48 episode TV series starred Anita Yuen as Mulan [photo, right]. However, over the past couple of years, no less than three versions have been rattling around in development hell. The most eagerly anticipated one stars Michelle Yeoh as Mulan, with Chow Yun-Fat co-starring. The director is uncertain (Peter Pau and Christophe Gans are most often mentioned) and production still hasn’t started, even though it was announced back in July 2001; recent reports now have it scheduled to begin filming early next year.
Stanley Tong has also been working on The Legend of Mulan; the original plan was to shoot this in English, with Lucy Liu and The Rock as Mulan and the Hun general respectively, but this may have fallen through; with Tong now working on the next Jackie Chan film, this one seems to be on the back-burner. Finally, a Korean version, with either Jeon Ji Hyun (My Sassy Girl) or Zhang Zi-Yi, was scheduled, but not much has been heard about this lately. The Disney version, on the other hand, just came out on DVD for the first time – in part, I suspect, to act as marketing for the forthcoming, inevitable Mulan II. The trailer for the sequel is on the Mulan DVD, but Lady and the Tramp II, The Little Mermaid II, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II and Aladdin II should give you an idea of how wonderful Mulan II will be. [It’s going straight to video, of course, but it does at least have Ming-Na Wen. No Eddie Murphy though.]
That’s a shame, because the original still has a great deal to offer. Unlike many Disney films, the songs don’t bring proceedings to a grinding halt and are notably absent from the second half of the film. Indeed, the transition is deliberately abrupt: a band of happy, singing warriors is stopped mid-verse when they come across a burnt-out village which the Huns have exterminated (right). It’s a simple, but highly effective moment, where silence says a lot more than any words. [At one point a song for Mulan about the tragedy of war was considered, but this was dropped, along with Mushu’s song, Keep ‘Em Guessing – both decisions which can only be applauded.]
Obviously, in terms of action, it’s hamstrung by the G-certificate (though the British censors insisted on a headbutt being removed to get the equivalent ‘U’-rating), but allowing for this, it’s still got some exciting scenes, and the first encounter between Mulan and the Hun army is fabulous by any measure. It also avoids the pitfall of many a Disney film – making the villains more memorable than the main characters. [Everyone remembers Cruella DeVille from 101 Dalmatians; but can you name the hero?] Here, Shan-Yu is almost a caricature, but does what’s necessary quickly, allowing the other characters to be developed more completely, and compared to other Disney heroines, Mulan may be the most well-rounded human being.
Of course, Eddie Murphy comes close to stealing the show as demoted family guardian, Mushu. Unlike Shrek, where the competition for laughs with Mike Myers was painfully clear, Ming-Na Wen is content to be the straight “man”, and the film benefits as a result. Murphy’s accent is entirely anachronistic, naturally, but that’s half the fun – interestingly, the American DVD offers the option of a Mandarin soundtrack, which is a nice option. We did try it for a bit, but the Chinese Mushu just didn’t have the life and energy of Murphy, and we soon switched back. [HK singer CoCo Lee plays Mulan, while Jackie Chan is the voice of Shang in both this and the Cantonese versions] The tunes are perhaps not quite “classic” Disney, in the sense that they don’t stay in your brain for years after, to explode at the most inappropriate moments. They’re still fairly hummable though, and Jerry Goldsmith’s Eastern-tinged score compliments the similarly Oriental-flavoured animation well. The makers clearly did a lot of research, thought it does have to be said, the film does not exactly portray Chinese culture in a particularly good light; Mulan, the heroine, is shown as rebelling against it in almost every way. One reviewer describes its basic theme as, “a woman with western values overcoming the oppression of a backwards Chinese civilization.” Ouch.
However, personally, I’d say the value of having a clearly non-Caucasian heroine (a first for any Disney film) outweighs relatively minor quibbles about subtext. It may be the last great hand-drawn animated feature from the studio which invented the genre, and all but defined it for sixty years, so I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this as an empowering and highly entertaining tale for children – of any age, but especially those too young to read subtitles. There aren’t many action heroine films our entire family loves, but Mulan is definitely high on the list.
Dir: Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook
Star: Ming-na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.D.Wong, Soon-Tek Oh