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This Disney two-pack might temporarily engage the kiddos, but Mulan is definitely not one for the ages...
Buena Vista / 167 Minutes / 1998/2004 / Rated G / Street Date: March 12, 2013
During Mulan's first act, the storytellers blend Mulan’s (Ming-Na) discomfort participating in a matchmaking ritual with her father’s loving exasperation. In a scene of dramatic introspection, Mulan struggles to come to terms with who she may be. Mulan’s eager good intentions, modesty, bungling, and self-deprecating frustration establish her as a highly sympathetic character.
The Fa family is among the landed gentry and, when Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) and his horde of barbarians breach the Great Wall, the Emperor (Pat Morita) commands that every family in China send one male to serve in defense of the country. Since the Fa family has no sons, Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh), must accept the draft. He is an old, noble warrior who limps from a wound suffered in a former battle. Mulan realizes that he cannot survive another war; for the first time in her life she defies convention. To protect her father, she prays to her ancestors for guidance, cuts her long hair short, dons her father’s armor and sword, and quietly slips away in the night to take his place. By now, the audience is fully invested in Mulan’s fate.
The ancestors have not been deaf to her pleas. In the family shrine, the First Ancestor (George Takei) awakens and summons Mushu (Eddie Murphy), a demoted diminutive dragon and one of the twelve guardians of the Chinese Zodiac. He is to awaken the other ancestors and the great stone dragon that will be sent to protect Mulan from harm. This doesn’t go as smoothly as it might. When the great stone dragon is reduced to rubble, Mushu nominates himself to guide Mulan to great victories in order to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of the First Ancestor. So when Mulan reports for training, she has a misguided guide coaching her and we have some comic relief.
Mulan’s reception is less than cordial. Her bungling attempts at macho behavior neither amuse her fellow draftees nor the audience. This is one of two sequences in which the filmmakers faltered; she is a bit too buffoonish. Perhaps since this was the first sequence animated that the filmmakers hadn’t quite found the film’s tone yet. (The second stumble is the gratuitous dance number during the last two minutes of the film.) Act two follows Mulan as she secretly develops feelings for Captain Li Shang (B.D. Wong) and wins over her fellow troops. Her success as a soldier comes from her realizing that she may not have brawn, but she does have brains. Her ingenuity will serve her well both during the training and in the mortal combat that this small band of warriors faces in act three.
The filmmakers cleverly shift away from song as the story becomes more dramatic. As Mulan enjoys triumphs and suffers defeats, the threat to the Emperor escalates. Will this plucky heroine inspire a loyalty that will help defeat the barbaric Shan-Yu? Will she be slain for violating Imperial Law? Will she bring honor to the Fa family? Will Mushu regain his status as guardian? Is Disney known for happy endings? This is another uplifting, feel-good family film that should appeal to a broad audience. The excellent voice cast projects just the right notes of drama and humor. Only Eddie Murphy’s droll Mushu seems anachronistic, but it’s worth the displaced culture to enjoy his hijinks.
Then there's Mulan's sequel. When last we left our heroine, she had saved China, received an unprecedented public tribute from the Emperor, found a love interest, and had protected her wounded father while maintaining the family honor. She's been a busy girl. That emotionally satisfying animated tale has spawned a sequel to continue her life journey; it's a cleverly named direct-to-home production called Mulan 2.
Mulan has returned to her parents' home, enjoying less adventurous days performing chores that don't require mortal combat. Her reputation has spread throughout the middle kingdom and it's not uncommon for young girls to worship at her feet, begging to be taught some of the combat skills she learned while impersonating a male soldier. She and her family have been patiently waiting for Li Shang (B.D. Wong) to formally propose marriage, and now that he's been promoted to the rank of general, he feels worthy to ask for her hand. Alas, nuptials will have to wait. The Emperor (Pat Morita) has summoned them to his palace; China is again threatened.
An imminent invasion, one that may destroy the middle kingdom, must be stopped. The Emperor has decided that a political alliance with a kingdom to the North will offer such a strong, unified defense, that the invaders will be forced to back off. But to cement unification requires the blending of two royal families; he arranges for his three daughters - Mei (Lucy Liu), Su (Lauren Tom), and Ting Ting (Sandra Oh) - to marry the princes of the Northern Kingdom. Mulan and Li Shang are tasked with the safe escort of the princesses through bandit-infested wilderness. General Li Shang proposes that a small stealthy escort rather than a show of force might be the better approach. And who would be better than three veterans of their previous campaign to act as bodyguards?
Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo), and Ling (Gedde Watanabe) haven't been able to leverage their fame. These lonely misfits have a knack for discouraging the most optimistic matchmakers. And the Disney animators couldn't possibly have telegraphed where this tale is going any clearer. And speaking of leveraging fame, Mushu (Mark Moseley) has been spectacularly annoying; he's been as demanding as a petulant child, and the ancestors have felt obligated to spoil him as reward for helping save Mulan and the honor of the family. Ah, but their patience is wearing thin. They welcome the news of Mulan's impending marriage; it will transfer spiritual oversight to the groom's ancestors. After her wedding, Mushu will be back on gong duty. What's a selfish little dragon to do? Break up the engagement, of course. And that sets up the last of this film's three story arcs.
This film isn't as satisfying as the original, not because the production values have slipped, or the visuals any less pleasant. The problem is that the film shifts its emphasis away from Mulan and onto the three misfits and their remarkably unbelievable romantic aspirations. The invaders remain invisible throughout; the only threat to our hearty little band is a run-in with some nasty bandits who are more interested in thievery than doing harm. And there's more. Mulan's modern ideas would have had little traction in ancient China's highly structured society, but one of her heartfelt aphorisms drives one storyline forward. And Mushu's scheming goes beyond his previous egocentric self-involvement to a mean-spirited selfishness. This film is clearly directed at a younger audience than the original, and on that level it is quite effective. Audiences who have yet to reach their eleventh birthday will be very happy with the bright pastel world of Mulan 2 and the inclusion of several new songs. This release may be considerably better than the usual direct-to-video fare, the film will be of limited interest to adults.