Mulan/Mulan II (US - BD)
Gabe explores gender politics during the Han Dynasty via the Disney filter...
Mulan was released at the tail end of Disney’s so-called ‘Second Renaissance’ (sometimes referred to as simply the 'Disney Renaissance'), following the box office dip of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. It was monetarily successful and received mostly good reviews, but is often coupled with a downturn period and is often forgotten by those of us past the ideal viewing age when it hit theaters in 1998. If I’m honest, I have to admit, I tend to blur Mulan and Pocahontas together into a sort of ‘white me try to understand another culture’ double-feature, which means my memories of Mulan are tainted by my dislike of Pocahontas’ over-simplified storytelling and anglocentrism. This review affords me the chance to revisit Mulan and realize my memories are fuzzy. This is certainly a Disney-fied version of non-anglo history, but it’s not a particularly insulting view of Chinese culture (more Aladdin than Pocahontas). In fact, the cultural references make for a much richer cinematic experience, rather than dimwitted, politically correct speed bumps in the story, ala Pocahontas.
Mulan’s greater purpose is as a reimagination of the Disney Princess™ – another thing Pocahontas failed to achieve. A true feminist reading of Disney Princess™ casts is a philosophical minefield and it is difficult to define the tradition on anything but a case-by-case basis, but I’m guessing most people would agree that the majority of these characters are passive individuals that ultimately need to be saved by male characters. The filmmakers do go a little overboard in presenting Mulan as the anti-Disney Princess™ ( Beauty and the Beast’s Belle is the more interesting and subtle heir to that throne), since her entire existence practically revolves around the fact that she’s fighting to be a part of a man’s world, but one can’t adapt the legend of Hua Mulan without taking on the story’s feminist themes. The otherwise competently-paced film tends to grind to a halt with a few too many training montages and ‘how to be a man’ lessons. It’s sort of the narrative purpose of this shortened version of the Hero’s Journey, but it robs Mulan slightly of her third act achievements, as does the entirely unnecessary romantic subplots stolen from every other movie where a man/woman pretends to be a woman/man. As an adult, I find I miss the time away from the Huns as the story focuses on Mulan’s attempts at disguising her sexual identity. However, I will admit that the sudden shift from merry to sullen when Mulan’s motley crew discovers a burnt out encampment of dead soldiers mid-song is a well-earned shock.
Disney’s Second Renaissance cartoons are mostly a mix of comedy and drama ( Hercules is the one I’d call more or less a straight comedy) and the mix was often undone by too much cutesiness on the comedic side of the coin. Hunchback of Notre Dame was especially awkward in terms of mixing styles, because it put too much of the comedy into relief characters that didn’t fit the otherwise consistent tone (those would be the gargoyles). Mulan’s comic relief is similarly represented in the Eddie Murphy-voiced Mushu, a dragon that follows Mulan throughout her adventures. Murphy was hired almost exclusively because Disney had so much success hiring a similarly R-rated comedian named Robin Williams when they made Aladdin and he never fits the mould. On the other hand, he also doesn’t grind things to an utter halt. Mushu and Williams’ Genie serve almost the exact same narrative purpose, which means that, at the very least, Mushu actually serves a narrative purpose. The movie could’ve probably worked better without a personality as loud as Murphy in the Mushu role, but he isn’t a Jar Jar Binks-style waste of tonal texture. The bigger issue is that the film is already genuinely funny without Mushu’s occasional histrionics.
Mulan II more or less your average STV Disney animated sequel – it takes a more comedic route with the material and the scale is minimalized as well as the threat. The minimalization of the scale this time is a bit of a joke – rather than saving China and turning centuries of sexual politics on their head, Mulan II is all about the trials of…marriage. Like Pocahontas II, this film is a direct follow-up to the first one, taking place mere months after the events of Mulan, so the threat of invasion and war is still present. Unable to pay for epic battle sequence, the Emperor decides to take a peaceful route and marry his daughters off to a Mongol lord as a sign of mutual respect and peace. This is certainly less exciting than battling Hun hordes, but does afford the filmmakers an excuse to continue the ‘social placement of women’ thing from the first film. Mulan’s misfit friends are chosen to guard the ladies on their way to being married and immediately fall deeply in love with them. Eventually, the ladies respond and put a kink in the marriage machine, which leads Mulan to question the validity of her own upcoming nuptials. Way too much the plot revolves around Mushu selfishly trying to foul up Mulan and Li’s romance after he learns their marriage will lose him his new status among the ancestors. These scenes aren’t only obnoxious – they betray the likability of the Mushu character and lead to some incredibly lame ‘battle of the sexes’ clichés, which, in turn, betrays the intended themes of both films. Without these scenes the runtime would sit well under feature length, but the simple boy & boy & boy meet girl & girl & girl story would’ve been perfectly charming.
Mulan is definitely a pretty movie and, though it fits in well with the other Disney animated films of the era, it still has a distinctively Asian style. Since its release, both Avatar the Last Airbender and Kung Fu Panda have also adopted Chinese carving, calligraphy, and watercolor art, but neither dealt in the super-sharp edges and straight lines Mulan does. The crispness of these edges is an important part of this new 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer. They define and separate the foreground cells from the painted backgrounds without the edge haloes found on the included DVD copy. The detail increases over DVD are mostly found in the painted backgrounds, which feature a lot more fine texture and more complex patterns, but I also noticed neat little special effects embellishments that tend to go unnoticed in standard definition. The digitally assisted cell colouring (which was still relatively new at the time) features softly blended embellishments (rosy cheeks and the horse’s muzzles, for example), but is largely made up of solid, unbroken hues, minus the cell-shading techniques of just about every other era-Disney cartoon. These hues are wonderfully pure and vibrant with only minor hints of digital noise in the busiest shots. The contrast between cool and warm hues is especially brilliant, along with the differentiations between the more ostentatious, red and orange Chinese and the simpler, darker, brown and grey Huns.
Mulan II was made recently enough (2004) that it doesn’t have the same issues earlier STV Disney animation did with rough-looking, handmade animation. With the help of computers, the animation staff was able to create a completely consistent colour palette and cleaner lines. The budget constraints show less in the cell animation’s movement and more in the thinner backgrounds. The original film’s complex textures and colour patterns are missing and, in their place, the production has supplied us with largely empty soft pastel blends (some of which feature minor banding effects) and chalky, blobby background elements. Sometimes, the HD uptake reveals the texture of what appears to be coloured pencil marks and some minor highlights, but there’s really not a lot of fine detail here. Again, the solid quality of the colours is the transfer’s best quality. The overall palette is noticeably dimmer than the first film (some of this is a stylistic choice, since the palette is more earthy this time around) and features a slight uptake in minor digital noise throughout the warmer hues, but there’s nothing worth worrying about.
Mulan features a new, uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. This mix is not among Disney’s most full-bodied mixes from the post-digital period, but has its share of subtle ambience (rain, wind, the sound of men working in the army’s training camp) and more aggressive moments, like the directionally enhanced whoosh of magic. The Hun hordes make for a lot of multi-channel noise all on their own, especially their LFE-thundering horse hooves, and the battle sequences feature the most expressive use of surround sound – including clanging swords, flying arrows, exploding rockets, and the climatic rumble of the epic avalanche. Stylistically, the sound design tends to aim for hyperrealism, but Mushu’s more over-the-top actions give way to the traditionally cartoony sounds that sit nicely over the natural noises. Jerry Goldsmith Oscar-nominated score, which often sits in place of more complex ambient sound effects, is rich and bombastic (love that brass) when it needs to be, without sacrificing the smooth and delicate moments. Many viewers (including myself, actually) will probably forget that Mulan was the last theatrically released Disney animated musical for over a decade, when The Princess and the Frog[I] was released in 2009 (the return didn’t really take, unfortunately). Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s songs are another major aural highlight, including both rich instrumentations and directional effects enhancements.
[I]Mulan II’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is a definitely quieter experience. Joel McNeely’s music rests like an undercurrent to fill out some of the silence, but the majority of the film is centered and dialogue-based, and some of the dialogue is a bit unbalanced in terms of volume. There’s just not much here in terms of ambience here and, when there, it’s treated as the chief aural element (sometimes very well placed within the channels), not really a part of a bigger, layered mix. There’s a montage of Mushu trying to mess up Shang and Mulan’s time together that gives way to some lively, cartoony sound design and directional enhancement. Other highlights include a couple of action sequences, especially a bandit kidnapping scene that includes concubines screaming from every corner of the room. The music that gives the mix a bottom is actually pretty soft until characters start singing and it becomes the central focus of the track. The songs aren’t very good, but are interesting due to the number of people involved in songwriting. At the very least, the music is sort of eclectic.
Mulan’s extras are all hold-overs from the original special edition release and begin with a commentary featuring producer Pam Coats and directors Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook. Coats sort of moderates this informative, but often over-prepped and praise-overloaded track. Often, preparation and scene specific approaches work, but here, it feels inorganic. Even the jokes and candor sound as if they’ve been planned. As the track progresses, it loosens up a bit, but the factoids and overly complex discussions of thematic subtext turn a bit repetitive in an effort to fill the blank space. Discussion concerning the cultural practices that underline the films images and themes is also a bit defensive at times, which I suppose is understandable, but not particularly charming.
The extras also include seven deleted scenes (in storyboard form with director introductions, 22:40, SD), Mulan’s Fun Facts (2:10, SD), Discovering Mulan featurette (6:50, SD), The Ballad of Hua Mulan poem (5:10, SD), two presentation reels (2:20, 2:00, SD), Finding Mulan featurette (7:00, SD), a storyboard to film comparison (1:20, SD), Art Design (5:30, SD), Character Design (3:50, SD), Ballad of Color (4:30, SD), Mushu Awakens and Matchmaker Meets Mulan story sketch-to-rough animation comparisons (SD), The Hun Charge (4:50, SD), Digital Dim Sum (4:00, SD), five music videos, Songs of Mulan (5:10, SD), Mulan’s International Journey[I] (5:40, SD), and a multilingual reel.
[I]Mulan II’s extras are also holdovers from the DVD release, including four deleted scenes, Voices of Mulan (3:00, SD), and a music video.
Mulan was not one of the Disney films I grew up with, so I watched this new Blu-ray release without any sense of nostalgia. I’m happy to say that the film has aged well and that it belongs alongside other underrated Disney Second Renaissance animated features, like Hunchback of Notre Dame (review coming soon), Hercules, and Tarzan (all of which were conveniently released in a row). This Blu-ray presentation is pretty gorgeous (specifically in terms of colour quality), it sounds very good (especially Jerry Goldsmith’s score), and features all the original special edition DVD’s extra features. The presence of the lackluster, but reasonably entertaining sequel is unnecessary, unless you go ahead and count it as an additional ‘extra.’
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 12th March 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish and French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Filmmakers' Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Mulan’s Fun Facts, Discovering Mulan, The Ballad of Hua Mulan, Finding Mulan, Storyboard to Film Comparisons, Art and Design Featurettes, Music Videos, Mulan’s International Journey, Multi-Language Reel, Voices of Mulan, Trailers, DVD Copies
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
Cast: Ming-Na, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, Beth Fowler, George Takei, Pat Morita
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Musical, Romance and War
Length: 167 minutes
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