When Mulan was released in 1998, the Disney Renaissance was nearing its close. Pixar was on the rise to prominence, and Dreamworks had started to make a name for themselves in the animation scene. But the 90s Disney films still had some steam left, as is evidenced by Mulan. It was one of the best Disney films of its time, and it has aged gracefully.
Mulan tells a story that’s simple in structure, but epic in scope: An army of Huns – lead by the villainous Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) – have invaded China. In order to gain enough soldiers to fend off the invaders, the Emperor commands that one man from every family join the Chinese army.
In a quieter part of China, a young woman named Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is trying to find her place in the world. After Mulan botches a meeting with a matchmaker, she is deemed unsuitable for marriage. But Mulan is simply too spirited for the confines that society has put on her, and is destined for greater things.
Mulan’s father is eventually called to join the ranks of China’s army, but he is aged and injured. Mulan, fearing for her father, disguises herself as a man to enlist in his stead. This being a Disney movie, she is joined on her journey a comedic dragon named Mushu (Eddie Murphy).
The movie works so well primarily because Mulan herself is so appealing. Most of the Disney heroines before her were either helpless damsels waiting for a noble hero to whisk them away, or relatively stronger characters whose romantic interests were nonetheless the focus of their quests. Mulan is instead a strong, independent character who still manages to have some funny moments. Yes, her commanding officer Shang (B.D. Wong) still catches her eye, but it’s not the center of the story. Mulan is all about its titular heroine, and its her strength and spunk that carries the story.
While the presence of Eddie Murphy can make Mushu feel like a simple star-vehicle, Mushu ultimately works, and becomes a humorous foil for Mulan. Mushu may not reach the comedic heights of Aladdin’s Genie, but his energy served as a fun precursor to Eddie Murphy’s role as Donkey in the Shrek series.
The downside is that Mulan’s villain, Shan Yu, is a rather forgettable foe. He looks intimidating enough, and certain scenes allude to just how evil his actions can be. But you could potentially swap him out for any of the other Hun characters around him and you may not know the difference. The Hun army as a whole has more of a villainous presence than Shan Yu himself.
Mulan features a short list of songs which, although consistently good, are too few and far between. “Reflection” is Mulan’s centerpiece number, and is one of the more underrated ‘princess songs’ in Disney lore. “Honor to Us All” is a fun opener, even if it can’t touch the likes of “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is a lively piece with some touches of humor. “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is comedic and catchy, though it followed the “Hakuna Matata” tradition of the comedic song happening at the wrong time.
The songs in Mulan are all solid, but they are a smaller presence in the film. With the exception of Reflection, you can imagine Mulan working just as well without them.
The visuals of Mulan were a departure from its predecessors in the Disney Renaissance, but are just as lovely. Mulan utilizes simpler designs in its characters and backgrounds. It has a notable watercolor look about it, to mimic Chinese artwork with a dash of Japanese anime.
Mulan ranks highly among the Disney films of the 90s for its well-structured story and compelling heroine. The soundtrack might not match up to some of its peers, and its villain can’t hold a candle to Disney’s better bad guys. But Mulan gets bonus points for its terrific action scenes and unique art style. It borrows some familiar elements from past Disney films, but tweaks them in meaningful ways.
Mulan may not be the most iconic film from the Disney Renaissance, but it is, quietly, one of the era’s best.