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Mulan / Mulan II
March 10, 2013

Mulan comes out on Tuesday on Blu-ray, accompanied by its sequel, Mulan II. I welcomed the chance to see the movie. I hadn’t seen it before, and the idea of a young woman going undercover as a soldier seemed like an intriguing change from the usual Disney princess.

Mulan

The animation wasn’t as attractive as I had hoped — it looked more to me like good TV animation than feature-film quality, but I’m spoiled by the many amazing techniques they use these days. The settings and backgrounds are beautiful, but the foreground movement doesn’t always live up to their quality. The overall design is simplified, and the dog was flat-out weird to see, very cartoony. The horse, on the other hand, reminded me of Hercules (the Disney animated movie that came out just before this one). The transformation sequence, when Mulan makes her decision, is impressive, as is the final sequence in the city at night. The martial arts fighting is also well-done and believable.

Mulan’s character (voiced by Ming-Na Wen, singing by Lea Salonga) is intriguing, writing cheat notes on her arm and demonstrating imagination and initiative. It almost made up for the first song, about needing to be prettied up in order to be married off; that’s the Disney princess that’s more commonly known. Still, many viewers can relate to Mulan’s disappointment at not being able to be who her family wants her to be. Her skills aren’t valued because they’re unusual and don’t fit into the mold, yet they’re precisely what’s needed, although the family doesn’t recognize that.

Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) and her father (Soon-Tek Oh)

Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) and her father (Soon-Tek Oh)

Early on, there’s a lot more slapstick than I wanted, from the fat matchmaker (because large women are always funny, right?) to the ridiculous accidents that occur. Once the dramatic section begins, however, I liked the movie much more. That’s driven by the conscription of Mulan’s aging father into the army to fight invaders. To save him, she disguises herself and goes in his place.

Mulan trained by Shang (BD Wong)

Mulan trained by Shang (BD Wong)

It took Mushu, the tiny dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, a little while to grow on me. I found him annoying until he started taking care of Mulan during training. Other famous voices include Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, George Takei, James Hong, and BD Wong as the love interest, Shang (sung by Donny Osmond). I was impressed that the grandmother is voiced by the immortal June Foray and sung by Marni Nixon.

Mulan (in disguise) with Mushu

Mulan (in disguise) with Mushu

I was a bit shocked when there was a silent break and the movie brought home the message “war is not fun”. I didn’t expect the film to be so blunt with such a necessary warning. I was subsequently impressed when physics saved the day, until we were then expected to believe a rope could hold two adults and a horse. Overall, I found the ending much stronger than the beginning, and I was left liking the film.

Mulan II

This direct-to-video followup has all of the same voice cast, except Mark Moseley substitutes for Eddie Murphy as Mushu.

Mulan II

Mulan has returned home, where she’s training a bunch of little girls how to be tough and strong, yet gentle and peaceful, in a song about the need for balance. Shang has been promoted to general, and he’s come to ask Mulan to marry him. Because that would mean Mushu losing his place in the family pantheon, he’s decided to break them up. (This plot point is strained, just to give Mushu something to do, and unfortunate, since it’s very selfish and sitcommy.)

Mulan and Shang are summoned to the Emperor for a mission. In order to forge an alliance, they must escort his three daughters (Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Lauren Tom) to be wed to princes of a neighboring country.

Sandra Oh, Lauren Tom, and Lucy Liu voice the princesses

Sandra Oh, Lauren Tom, and Lucy Liu voice the princesses

As you might guess, the film is very anti-arranged marriages, thus historically inaccurate. It’s not clear why Mulan is so against this idea, since she was going to be part of one until she flunked with the matchmaker in the first movie. The princesses fall in love at first site with the trio of accompanying soldiers (Mulan’s friends from the first film), perpetuating the idea of romance and silly feelings as the best basis for relationships. Opposites may attract, but they may not be a great basis for a long-term commitment. I know this is a kids’ film, and they went with classic motivations and conflicts, but in this setting and context, it felt poorly chosen to me. Also predictable.

The message of the film becomes “your duty is to your heart”, which justifies selfishness and emotion over logic and responsibility. I did like the way that Mulan and Shang could laugh together and laugh off the stupid things Mushu kept doing to try and break them up, until the requirements of the melodrama took over the characterization. There are parts of Mulan II that are worth watching, mostly those focusing on Mulan alone or with Shang, but it’s a very mixed bag.

Special Features

The 3-Disc Special Edition Blu-ray comes with both movies on one Blu-ray disc and 2 DVDs, one for each film. The Blu-ray extras for Mulan are:

  • Audio commentary by producer Pam Coats and directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook
  • Seven deleted scenes, 22 1/2 minutes total, introduced and explained by the directors and animators
  • Backstage Disney, featurettes on the making of the movie, covering “Mulan’s Fun Facts” (2 min, trivia popups over some old-looking video), “The Journey Begins” (4 segments, 16 min, about the Chinese influences and the animators’ trip to the country), “Story Artists’ Journey” (2 segments, 9 min, about finding Mulan’s character), “Design” (3 segments, 14 min, on art, character, and color designs), “Production” (2 segments, 10 min, different stages in creating 2 different scenes), and “Digital Production” (2 segments, 9 min, about the then-new computer techniques they developed)
  • Five music videos, plus five minutes on the “Songs of Mulan”
  • Two short pieces on Mulan internationally in other languages

The DVD is lacking most of the featurettes but has the commentary, music videos, and deleted scenes.

For Mulan II, the extras (all duplicated on the DVD) are:

  • Backstage Disney: Voices of Mulan (3 min), which shows some of the actors in the studio
  • Four deleted scenes, about 10 minutes total, introduced and explained by unnamed staff — I’m assuming they’re director and producers
  • A music video

(The studio provided a review copy.)

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