Thoughts On: Mulan (1998)
To save her injured conscripted father from almost certain death, a young girl has to impersonate a soldier and sneak into the Chinese army.
Utterly spectacular, Mulan is a perfect meeting of drama, character, comedy and music that features some of Disney’s most memorable figures and songs. With a unique style, Mulan has a simplistic aesthetic that is often stunning – one that distinguishes it as a Disney film of its own. This is despite the fact that there are many common tropes of previous Disney films present in this narrative. The most prevalent of these, especially in the first act, is Beauty And The Beast. Both the tone and structure of the opening sequence that sees Mulan wake, move through town and toward the match maker is very much like the Little Town opening number in Beauty And The Beast.
However, whilst these two sequences feel somewhat the same, Mulan intentionally develops a differing path toward the 3rd act with less romance, more conflict, action and so on. But, the reason why Mulan starts out as very similar to Beauty And The Beast is because, in its early stages, Mulan as a character was supposed to want something new, was supposed to need an escape and freedom from a constrictive town – much like Belle. The directors and animators worked on this story line for some time, but ended up abandoning it because Mulan as a character simply wasn’t likable. This was probably the most pivotal and beneficial of decisions made during production as Mulan would have very much been just a gimmick if it employed the ‘need to be free’ character plot yet again. In such, it would have just been Beauty And The Beast in Ancient China with a war. What’s more, the change of Mulan’s character to be self-sacrificial elevated this film to be, in my opinion, one of the strongest hero stories Disney has ever produced.
However, we’ll return to those ideas later. Coming back to aesthetics, whilst the character design, background design and use of colour is often stunning, these elements do not always come together to produce a uniformally dynamic and immersive story. This is an aspect of the stylistic approach that the animators consciously tried to balance, adopting a simple and minimalist Chinese aesthetic by studying art of the period. This approach came to be coined, by the animators and artists, as ‘poetic simplicity’. This poetic simplicity works well in static shots like those in the opening sequence.
Moreover, you grow accustomed to the shallow focus and impressionistic background animation. However, when characters interact in these scenes, the framing sometimes feels a little too tight. Added to this, the direction is a little awkward with, in some sequences, a weak use of close-ups and inserts.
This is a very nit-picky assessment of the aesthetic, but I’m not entirely sure this style works throughout the narrative as it’s very dependent on powerful, moody and atmospheric imagery. This is very apparent and quite strong in shots like this…
… but not so much this…
This comes down to the application of detail. Whilst the intention was to develop an aesthetic that felt as if it came from this culture and period, one that was, in simple terms, quite plain with a use of much negative space, I’d like to see the focus deepened and more intricate detail implied or added to scenes through more vibrant colour and sharper imagery.
I’d be interested in seeing this as the aesthetic approach of Mulan has clear links to Bambi, which was also minimalistic and used elements of impressionism, especially in the famous background design.
However, what really makes the style of Bambi so stunning is the injection of realism that balances the cartoonish embellishments and impressionistic implications. In such, the approach to texture, colour, tones and layering in Bambi really puts you in a forest with near-real deer. Mulan lacks this realism and sense of location as it goes for an aesthetic projection of a culture (through their art work) rather than manipulating and playing with shades of photorealism as Bambi does. In the simplest terms, Mulan feels like a bit too much of a cartoon. However, we are comparing it to what is almost unarguably the most beautiful Disney film ever made, so we’ll cut it a little slack.
The elements of style that work quite well in this narrative are around the sequences with CGI or faux-plane effects – like the Han Charge and the opening.
Whilst Mulan was mostly hand drawn, animating a scene with thousands of horse-back riders in this way would be an immense task. This is why CG was used, and it briefly gives the narrative an epic sense of scale. What’s significant about this sequence is the creation of crowd simulation software that allowed detailed copies of two different riders to be given varying attributes to make them seem dissimilar – all before sending them down a hill as an army. The other interesting use of CG can be seen in this shot:
In this sequence we are seeing a CG version of a technique used in classical animation in which drawings were layered onto sheets of glass in a stack. By placing your background on a bottom layer, the mid ground above that, a character above that and then a foreground at the very top, you’d have an almost 3-dimensional effect when you shot looking down at the glass stack. Animators could achieve a similar 3D effect by pulling 2D drawings apart – almost like you’d see in a pop up book – called faux-plane animation. This distinguishes elements like The Great Wall From the background, adding an interesting dynamic touch to the narrative.
So, in respects to style and aesthetics, Mulan is interesting and sometimes pretty stunning, but is not consistently impressive or supportive/supported by the direction and manipulation of the frame. The only other critique you could delve into with this film would be the plot holes and problems with bits of narrative design – of which there are quite a few; consider the roles of the parents and how likely it was that Mulan would not have been caught for so long. There’s no need to delve into these, however, as they’re quite obvious.
What I really want to talk about with Mulan is its strongest element: character. As mentioned, Mulan could have been a very different film and character; she could have been an unlikable version of Belle from Beauty And The Beast, but in a war. This, in my view, would have been a grotesque Disney-fication of the original source material – a poem called The Ballad Of Mulan that recounts a legend of a female warrior who fought for China for 10 years. As with all Disney films, and as we discussed in the previous post of the Disney series, there are always differences between the Disney films and the original material. But, if the final product is good, which Mulan is, then this isn’t really a point of interest.
On a side note, if you watch the Making Of for Mulan you’ll find quite a few interesting details about the different versions of Disney’s Mulan. Whilst we’ve already touched on the major change to her character, there were also many stages of design and Mushu even had a part to sing in the I’ll Make A Man Out Of You sequence that just didn’t work with Eddy Murphy’s approach to the character. Side note within a side note, Eddy Murphy is hilarious in this movie – this is another Disney film that I laugh at like an idiot throughout when I’m by myself. Yet another side note, there’s quite a bit of incite given into the production of the plethora of varying language versions of Mulan given in the Making Of documentary. One of the most interesting details that I was somehow blind to was that Jackie Chan plays Captain Li in the Chinese version – and his variation of I’ll make A Man Out Of You is pretty awesome just because… Jackie Chan.
Back on track, the decision to align the character of Mulan closer to the essence of the source material produced, in my view, one of the strongest heroes Disney has ever put to screen. This all comes down to the character arc of a hero and the main variations it may take. In short, there are 2 main hero arcs. Firstly, there is the unsuspecting hero who is thrust into a new world with new challenges and a set of powers/skills that he or she has to struggle to acclimate to. Examples of this would be:
This is probably the most common type of hero arc as it allows screenwriters to explore what it means to become a hero through the plethora of conflicts that they will have to face. In short, this character arc has an inherent cinematic or story-esque quality to it because there are so many emotional and physical elements. However, the second kind of hero arc is one in which the hero is not at all reluctant and doesn’t really face internal challenges on his or her being a hero. Instead, they accept their heroism and mean to take it to new heights. There are many versions of this, subtle or not, and can be seen in films like these:
Whilst these stories may involve the protagonist learning something about what it means to be a hero, their key distinguishing factors are where they start out in the film – say for instance they are already a cop, a king or a demigod – and how they willingly try to become a hero of greater measures. These two versions of the hero arc are the archetypal and most common types – by far. Whilst variation from film to film has the potential to be massive, you will always get the slight feeling of “I think I’ve seen this before” because of how common these approach are. With clever screenwriting, you will be immersed into the archetypal story line, but, it is what it is.
The special thing about Mulan, and the reason why it is such a great hero story, is that it finds a mid-ground between the first-time hero arc and the hero trying to reach greater heights arc. And in such, it shaves some of the negative sides of both approaches away. With the first-time hero approach, you often get characters that start out as complete knobs…
Moreover, you’re likely to get an awful lot of exposition…
And added to this, the emotional conflict is never going to be too original, leaving the story pretty predictable.
With the pre-established hero with something to prove, you also have downfalls. The first is that these heroes are sometimes not very believable…
And this leads on to the most obvious critique; the heroes are often over-powered – which is, to a certain degree, cool – but this is often over-embellished to the point of there being almost no real conflict which can leave the story pretty ridiculous and heavily romanticised/contrived…
Lastly, the character arcs in these films can be very basic, often seeing the hero stop being so arrogant, such an asshole, so selfish or whatever…
Mulan manages to bypass many of these downfalls by going to war not to prove herself, but to save her father – a journey of learning through which she doesn’t only rise to hero status for the badge and t-shirt. This is so refreshing as she doesn’t start out as an asshole that needs to change drastically…
What’s more, she has a powerful motive for becoming a hero – it’s not for country and glory, but her father…
And added to this, she is never projected as over-powered and the story isn’t too contrived as Mulan rarely just kicks ass – she has to figure out inventive ways of overcoming a situation that doesn’t rely on just brawn…
But, not only does Mulan have this unique approach to its character arc play out physically, there’s also a strong subtextual element to Mulan that truly establishes it as one of the most complex hero arcs that can be seen in a Disney film.
I always used to think that the Reflection song was about Mulan wanting to prove to the world that there’s more in her; that she yearns for her social reflection to reveal her true inner characteristics. This is not completely true, however. Within this sequence, Mulan is questioning herself, asking who she is supposed to be and what she’s supposed to do. Whilst she says that she wants to be her true self, she also doesn’t recognise her reflection and so doesn’t have a clear image of who she is. Her character arc is then not just about being a hero, but discovering her capabilities and how she may be the person she wants to be for the sake of her family.
There is some sense of emotional profundity in this arc as it does mediate individual and collective ideals, producing a hero that actively balances self-sacrifice with personal incentive. Showing Mulan’s struggle with these two sides of her – as the above image perfectly represents – and contextualising this within war allows for a powerful story in which these two shades must both be accepted and merged into one persona by Mulan. This is what fuels the best sequence of the film: the I’ll Make A Man Out Of You song.
The reason why this song is so powerful, why it gives you the chills and riles you up, is that these soldiers are joining the army for the greater good of China, but also to become heroes: ‘Men’. This not only balances collective and individual goals, but it produces an antithesis to Mulan – she of course never becomes a Man. However, she does end up embodying all that this term means to connote; essentially, this rift between self-sacrifice and personal gain. This drives deep into people as we all have these two sides of us; we all want to look out for ourselves and our small group, but also others alike. And because Mulan inventively taps into this so well, I have to say, yet again, that it’s one of the strongest hero stories Disney has ever produced.
So, to conclude, whilst Mulan isn’t perfect, it is an excellent movie that acts as a great representative of heroism in screenwriting. But, what are your thoughts? What are your favorite parts of Mulan? Could it have been better?
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