29 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 36: Mulan

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The 1990s saw the mainstream blossoming of the politically correct movement in American culture, where generations of casual stereotypes ingrained in the public consciousness were examined and scrubbed of their offensive connotations. It was a strident and altruistic period, sidelined occasionally by its own utter priggishness. The advances made during this time--though far from all-encompassing--were profound and effective. One of the effects of this cultural change felt among the Disney studios was the expansion of potential protagonists and stories the animated films could depict. No longer beholden to a Euro-centric source of storytelling, Disney in the 1990s put into quick succession films set in Arabia, the native New World, and Asia. Along with Aladdin and Pocahontas, 1998's Mulan expanded the palette of what a "Disney princess" could be.  

Unfortunately for most of its running time, Mulan squanders any possibility of making some sort of narrative stride. In fact, during the film's first hour it makes nary a dent at all, be it emotionally, intellectually, or artistically. The narrative occasionally hints at greater things to come, with war on the horizon and the fate of a nation in the balance, but the filmmakers choose to limit the external threat to a series of offscreen destruction, only providing us with glimpses of the aftermath. This is a decision based solely on audience acceptance and it is a misguided one. Showing the invading Hun army massacring entire villages would certainly be traumatic for Disney's intended adolescent demographic, but avoiding the atrocities for most of the film's running time cushions all impending evil to the point of obfuscation. It is difficult to fully empathize with the dire attempts of a rag-tag unit of unfit soldiers to defend themselves when one doesn't know exactly what they are fighting against. Far too much time in this first hour is spent in the training grounds, where these men and a disguised Mulan prove their mettle.

The first hour also attempts to cram as many wacky characters and comic relief into the proceedings as possible. In addition to Eddie Murphy's wise-cracking Mushu, dragon mentor of Mulan, we get Mulan's sassy grandmother who always has a quip ready to punctuate any scene, as well as Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po, a trio of stooges who befriend the disguised Mulan at the training camp. With this saturation level of wackiness it is difficult to find footing in the film's emotional arc, which is confined and compressed into a series of tacky ballads of heightened histrionics, none of which possesses even an ounce of real emotion. None of the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel distinguish themselves from the recent work of Alan Menken. It is just more Broadway belting in dire search of a hook. The music uses just the token amount of Asian undertones to fit the setting, a bedrock that is completely nullified by the generic grandeur of the vocal melodies.

Happily, the film's second half is decidedly better than the first. It is not until the picture decides to fully embrace its epic potential that the narrative kicks into any sort of gear. The last half hour revolves around two solid action sequences that boost the stakes and provide a much needed thrill to the proceedings. The turning point comes when two armies clash in a well-conceived battle set in the snow-packed mountains. Borrowing from the grand stampede of The Lion King, an overwhelming horde of Huns come charging over the hill, their daunting numbers appearing limitless. Using her mental ingenuity in place of brute brawn, Mulan causes an avalanche that buries the enemy whilst sending her and her comrades scrambling over a cliff. The sequence blends the best uses of hand-drawn and computer generated animation and sets it against a vast, dramatic backdrop of jagged crags and all-consuming white powder.

The battle ends with Mulan injured and taken in for medical treatment. Here it is discovered that she is a woman in disguise and she is dishonorably abandoned in the mountains by her regiment. She soon learns that the evil warrior Shan Yu and several of the buried Huns are not dead, and she rushes to the Imperial City to warn everyone. Since she can no longer be trusted, no one will listen to her warning and Shan Yu barricades himself in the palace with the emperor. This results in Mulan infiltrating the building with the help of her friends. The final battle showcases Mulan's bravery, tenacity, and cunning, and results in Shan Yu being brutally exploded by a cache of fireworks. The section is not as strong visually or viscerally as the preceding snow battle but it manages to tie all of the narrative threads up nicely in a compact and efficient manner. 

Mulan's prevailing thematic preoccupation is with reflections and the revelations and distortions they can provide. It is a potentially interesting exploration that unfortunately remains thoroughly unexplored. This is not, however, for lack of trying. Despite the film's repeated attempts to showcase reflective allusions--not only cropping up in a series of visuals of varying subtlety, but in song as well with the bluntly-titled "Reflection"--it is curious what exactly the filmmakers set out to say. When they spend so much time and effort hammering home the theme, one would expect some sort of conclusion, but it all remains as oblique as the blurred image looking back from the water.

A far more interesting thematic tact involves the rejection of proscribed gender roles. The narrative of course is propelled by Mulan's decision to reject her culture's narrow feminine path, which involves little more than becoming a meek servant to her eventual husband, a duty for which she is entirely unsuited. She instead poses as a man to protect her father, which has its share of setbacks, but for which she is ultimately a resounding success.  Beyond her transformation, the climax of the picture sees the vulgar men who she spent weeks emulating, switching their own roles under the command of this cunning female, disguising themselves as women to infiltrate the palace. The progressive potential of this type of female is a welcome development, especially coming from a studio perceived as culturally conservative as Disney. How long will it be until we get our first homosexual Disney princess? Mulan is a small but necessary step in the direction away of the shrinking violet role of the stereotypical feminine archetype.  

Unfortunately, on the whole, Mulan is a middling affair that provides little to get enthusiastic about. Most of the film's potential is achingly wasted by goofy antics and a lack of interest in pursuing its thematic alleyways. If only the movie could have disguised itself much like its brave heroine, providing the conventional beats that propel a typical Disney narrative while subverting the audience's expectations with the audacity of progress. The film could have blended the graceful lines of Chinese watercolors with the fluid movements of martial arts, while exploring the perception of men and women in historical Asia. All of these elements are tantalizingly close to the surface throughout the picture but they remain fleeting, shuttled aside for the same tired narrative tropes and repetitive, nauseating songs. Mulan merely mimics the road tested tradition of its cinematic brethren, reinforcing rather than expanding Disney's storytelling scope.  

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