Of all the films of the Disney Renaissance, none went through such a dramatic transformation during their development as the ninth film. Before the idea to focus on a figure from Chinese legend came about, Disney was developing a story called China Doll about an oppressed girl who was rescued by a British prince and went to live happily ever after with him in the west.
Needless to say for anyone who's seen Mulan, they went in a very different direction indeed. Thankfully.
It was reportedly Disney consultant and children's book author Robert D. San Souci who first suggested the idea of making a film based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. He also wrote the screen story, and when Disney changed the direction of China Doll to develop this new idea, first time directors (but animation veterans) Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook were brought in to head the project.
Like most of the Disney Renaissance before it, Mulan was developed as a sweeping family musical, though for only the second time during this period Disney mainstay Alan Menken had no involvement in the music - Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Poltergeist, Gremlins) composed the score and Matthew Wilder and David Zippel arranged and wrote the songs. The story of the film changed shape often during production, but the basic throughline of the "Ballad of Mulan" about a woman who joins the Chinese army to spare her aging father when he's drafted remained intact. The poem, which was later fleshed out into a novel, was a trailblazer in Chinese poetry in that it espoused the notion of gender equality, a point that the Disney film is sure to drive home at every opportunity.
Not that the movie gets too heavy-handed (though even if it did, it's a point worth belaboring), but rather the film-makers use this theme as a springboard for a movie which is, in its base form, a Shakespearean comedy in the tradition of Much Ado About Nothing or even moreso, Twelfth Night. The film opens (in a gorgeous brush-work transition) with the Hun invasion of the Great Wall, introducing the villain Shan Yu and establishing setting and stakes before we even meet the title character. But from there you have plenty of the "upstairs/downstairs" comedy dynamic that Shakespeare indulged in, a trio of supporting characters (Ling, Yao, and Chien Po) who - if combined - are basically Falstaff, and of course, a woman pretending to be a man. The movie is even structured more similarly to a 5-act play than a "traditional" 3-act film, and is careful to keep the comedy mostly removed from the important dramatic scenes.
There's also plenty of raunchy humor. Mulan milks the cross-dressing gag for all its worth, not only with a bath scene that would feel right at home in an episode of Ranma 1/2 ("There's a couple of things I know they're bound to notice!"), but also with plenty of lines that will fly over most kids' heads but not their parents'. And then there's the little fact that the most memorable song in the movie - along with the dominant visual metaphor of the accompanying training montage - is pretty much all about the phallus. Don't believe me? Watch "I'll Make A Man Out of You" again and try not to think about penises.
All kidding aside, it's actually a fantastic example of a training montage. And I'll give due props to Wilder and Zippel, that is a really really good song, easily up there with a lot of the best from movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. But unfortunately, as was the case with the songs Zippel worked on in Hercules, a lot of the others aren't as noteworthy. "Reflection" is good and important to the character of Mulan, but the other two are fairly forgettable - though "A Girl Worth Fighting For" leads to a great tone reversal in the third act.
However, that matters little. The film seems less focused on the musical numbers as a whole (there are only 4 in Mulan), but Goldsmith's score here stands impressively on its own, and the film's narrative and character arcs are strong enough to support the entire endeavor. Mulan is one of the better characters in Disney's history - or indeed, the medium's - because while she's incredibly strong, it never feels like she's been designed to simply replace a male character, and she's fairly complex. Played with just enough vulnerability by Ming-Na Wen, she's not initially searching for adventure, merely wanting to help her family. In stark contrast to the more self-assured and egocentric characters like Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, Mulan struggles to find her identity, only leaving home out of selfless desperation.
And while the film features the requisite "animal sidekick" and "celebrity-voiced comic relief" character, the journey is still very much Mulan's. Partly because characters like Eddie Murphy's Mushu - while grating at times - totally earn the emotional connection to Mulan, and therefore the audience, but also because the movie knows when to shut up and tell its story visually. The animation in this film is more stylized and simplistic than in movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but because of the exaggerated characters, clean designs, and fluid movement (including some impressive martial arts animation), it creates a look all its own while still being very beautiful and evocative of oriental brush painting. And when the task is given to the animators to do all the heavy lifting in a dramatic scene, you get this:
No dialogue whatsoever, but that scene tells the audience everything. The movie does this "saying a lot with a little" several times throughout. For example, Shan Yu has the least screentime and dialogue of any Disney villain of the era, but is both totally memorable and intimidating. Part of that is because of a fantastic character design coupled with a dynamite vocal performance from Miguel Ferrer, but because the film opens with his invasion, he looms as a constant threat over the story, reappearing every time a raise in stakes is needed. Even the result of his presence is devastatingly effective, when we see his handiwork in one of the most grim scenes in Disney animation history.
Rewatching this film years later is something of a treat, because there's quite a bit here for film aficionados to appreciate. Eddie Murphy isn't the only recognizable actor here - George Takei has a bit part, as does James Shigeta (Joe Takagi from Die Hard), and any self-respecting movie geek can appreciate Lo Pan (James Hong) and Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) sharing a scene as Chi Fu and the Emperor respectively. It's also amusing to watch Eddie Murphy as he works a ruse worthy of Axel Foley or riffs on Batman. And for the more discerning, the film even references the meaning of Mulan's name ("wood orchid" or magnolia) with a recurring flower motif associated with the character.
But mostly it's just nice to see a movie that's held up so well. There are certainly parts of Mulan that fall a bit flat (several of Mushu's lines have never worked, and he really intrudes on the ending), but the movie has a clearly defined tone and commits to its narrative and characters fully. If there were to be no more Disney animated musicals (and for a time that seemed as though that would be the case), this would have been a good note to go out on.
The final film in the Disney Renaissance marked something of a turning point. While it certainly followed some of the formula established by this period in the studio's animation, this story of a man raised by apes eschewed the musical trappings of its predecessors, combined CGI with traditional animation to an astounding extent, and instead of a myth or fairy tale produced a rousing adventure yarn.