Ah, the Disney Renaissance. That stretch in the 1990s when Disney animation was restored to its former glory, and the latest Disney animated film was truly one of the big events of the summer. And for some reason, no film in the Disney Renaissance looms larger in my personal history than Mulan.
I have no idea how Mulan gained this illustrious position. Maybe it was because, thanks to being in college and with the computer lab, it was the first Disney animated film whose development I'd extensively followed online? Hell, because I'm a hoarder who never deletes anything, I'm pretty sure on my hard drive I still have the official Mulan wallpaper I downloaded from the official website in the spring of 1998, and was my computer wallpaper for most of that year.
Of all the great music and songs that came out of the Disney Renaissance, the soundtrack to Mulan is the only Disney soundtrack I own. How did that happen? Don't get me wrong, it's still great music. It was when they were starting to branch off from Alan Menken and his team. Film composing legend Jerry Goldsmith did the score, and it's spectacular. I've listened to it non-stop ever since I picked up the soundtrack back in 1998. Watching the film again tonight, I forgot that the score is different between the film and the soundtrack album, in the famous scene where Mulan makes her decision, cuts her hair, and dons her father's armor. The soundtrack album has an orchestral arrangement...the version in the film is done with synthesizers, making it sound very 1980s. And the songs are good, too, although there aren't very many of them compared to the Disney films of the time. And yes, I may occasionally still sing A Girl Worth Fighting For in the shower.
Or maybe my fascination comes from the era. As much as I love the films of the Disney Renaissance, the bulk of them did come out when I was in college, when everyone goes through an intellectual phase. My friends ravaged Hercules when it came out the year before for deviating too far from the original Greek myths...Mulan was given similar treatment. In Hollywood these days, the Chinese film market has become vital to get into, and in order to get approval from the communist Chinese censorship boards for a movie to be released in China, many Hollywood studios are doing things to kiss Chinese butt. (A prime, recent example is the entire third act of Transformers: Age of Extinction being set in and filmed in Hong Kong.) I remember my friends calling out Mulan as being the first instance of that happening. "How dare Disney try to suck up to China in the face of all their human rights violations!" my friends decreed.
Or maybe I just found the entire premise strange for Disney. I mean, a Chinese legend about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to join the Army? How Disney ever looked at that and said, "Yup, there's potential for a kid-friendly musical in there" is a leap of logic that baffles me to this very day.
But still, in the summer of 1998, I went to see it. It was my birthday movie that year when my first choice, Armageddon, was sold out. I don't think people fully remember the impact of the Disney Renaissance. Remember when Frozen came out, and everyone was singing Let it Go, and you saw the merchandise for the newest Disney characters everywhere? Imagine that happening EVERY SUMMER. That was the Disney Renaissance. That was the 1990s. Each new Disney animated film was an event. And for once, I was ahead of the curve.
But it's pretty much acknowledged that the Disney Renaissance peaked with The Lion King, and watching Mulan again tonight, that became quite obvious. At this stage in the game, Disney had established the formula, and they were sticking to it. I was watching it tonight thinking, "Wow, this is actually a lot like Aladdin, only instead of a street urchin pretending to be a prince, it's a woman pretending to be a soldier." That's incredibly obvious when it comes to Eddie Murphy as Mulan's little dragon sidekick Mushu. With the rapid-fire comedy, modern slang, and 1990s pop culture reference being slipped in, I have no doubt in my mind they were trying to duplicate the success and popularity of Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin.
But aside from Murphy, and voice acting legend June Foray making her only Disney Renaissance appearance in a brief role as Mulan's grandmother, the cast is a veritable who's who of every well-known Asian character actor. Leading the charge is Ming-Na Wen as Mulan. Originally shooting to fame in The Joy Luck Club, and currently kicking ass and taking names as Agent Melinda May on Agents of SHIELD. I remember in the early 1990s, she was on a short-lived sitcom called The Single Guy and seeing her as Mulan back in 1998, all I could think was, "Oh, it's that chick from The Single Guy." And watching it tonight, all I could hear was Agent May. She is great as Mulan. I found here voice acting to be a little bit flat as the film started, but she warmed up as the film went on. I find that happens with a lot of other rookie voice actors.
Then there's also BD Wong as Captain Li Shang. You may remember him from his countless seasons on Law & Order: SVU,, or, if you saw Jurassic World this past summer, you may recognize him as reprising his role from the original Jurassic Park as Dr. Henry Wu, the scientist who actually clones the dinosaurs. He's played so many doctorly types, that it's a great change of pace hearing him voice this military badass, and he does a great job.
There's also Mr. Miyagi himself, Pat Morita as the Emperor, and Miguel Ferrer doing some great menace as the villainous Shan Yu. Probably the least developed villain in the Disney Renaissance era, but it makes him more menacing just to be this unstoppable force of evil. George Takei even shows up as the spirit of one of Mulan's ancestors.
I'm trying to remember if I ever did see it again after I saw it in theatres way back in 1998. No doubt someone rented it in the dorms that following fall, and I probably watched it again, but despite it looming so large in my life since that era, it had been ages since I watched it. So, when I saw it for just $15, I knew it was time to watch it again.
Mulan is still just great entertainment. Yeah, it's not as great as the main quartet of the Disney Renaissance, but it's a worthy chapter.