Mulan: Special Edition Review
Ancient China: the Huns, lead by the ruthless Shan-Yu, have crossed the Great Wall and are destroying everything in their path. The Emperor declares a draft, with one man from each family ordered to go to war. Enter Fa Mulan, a headstrong girl who feels trapped by the way society views women. When her elderly father, the only man in the Fa family, is called up, Mulan disguises herself as a man and goes in his place in order to protect him. The family's Guardian spirits send Mushu, a tiny drafon and former Guardian, now gong-ringer, to bring Mulan back, but instead he decides to help her succeed both as a man and a warrior. Led by Captain Li Shang, Mulan prepares to go to war...
Mulan was the first of three films to be created and produced solely at Disney Feature Animation's short-lived Florida division. Based on an ancient Chinese folk tale written in poem form, it attempts something that no other Disney animated film has done before or since: it tries to tell the story against the backdrop of a war epic. Obviously, what appears on-screen deviates quite substantially from the source material, and Disney's notoriously conservative executives would naturally have put a stop to any real violence or bloodletting, but the sight of hordes of Huns riding on horseback over snowcapped mountains is impressive indeed. The film is never really allowed to truly become dark, but the stakes seem higher than in normal Disney fare, and at times the prospect of a happy ending is not completely certain – something of a departure from the studio's usual fare. In a further deviation from the norm, the film also engages in discussions of sexual equality and the lunacy of blind patriotism, both of which are of course wrapped up in a rather wholesome and child-friendly package, but are surprising and welcome additions nonetheless.
Mulan also has a strong emotional centre that feels a lot more genuine than that of many recent animated movies. Mulan is a flawed character, but a well-meaning one, and although she is concerned about the way she is perceived, at the end of the day her loyalty is to her family. While part of what makes her decide to run away and become a soldier is a desire to prove what she is capable of doing, her main reason is to save her aged father from almost certain death on the battlefield. While Disney's adaptation deviates from the original poem in that it makes Mulan a very modern woman with values that are sure to resonate more with teenage girls, they are handled with enough subtlety that they do not seem out of place. Mulan is ahead of her time - a woman who wants equality trapped in a time and place that would not give it to her. What makes her believable is the fact that she is played "straight": she doesn't spout witty catchphrases or commit any serious anachronisms, and she is allowed time to display her emotions. Scenes such as an early one in the family orchard where her father attempts to comfort her after being rejected by the Matchmaker bear the hand of Chris Sanders, who co-wrote and co-directed Lilo & Stitch and was Mulan's co-writer and Head of Story. The innate visual sense of his partner in crime, Lilo & Stitch co-writer and co-director Dean DeBlois, is also felt in the scene in which Mulan decides to go off to war, which is played without any dialogue at all. What ends up letting the film down is its ending. While the rest of the film is devoted to conveying the message that women are not inferior to men and can stand on their own two feet, it seems that the story crew got cold feet at the last minute, and could find no way of ending Mulan's story other than by pairing her up with a man. This conclusion makes a mockery of the rest of the film, and the shift in tone is quite jarring.
Equally jarring is the film's comic relief, which comes in the form of the dragon Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy. Mushu's dialogue, a lot of which plays heavily on gender roles and cross-dressing ("All because Miss Man decides to take her little drag-show on the road!" gets my vote as funniest line), is frequently extremely amusing, and much of it was probably ad-libbed à la Robin Williams in Aladdin, but the fact that Murphy's voice is extremely recognizable, not just as a decidedly modern celebrity but as an African American, leads to all sorts of problems. The biggest issue is that it is impossible to believe that an individual of with his personality and ethnicity would be found in ancient China, and as a result he makes the audience painfully aware that it is watching a piece of fabricated entertainment. Murphy is certainly on top form here, and while the stand-up nature of his performance works very well in short bursts, it does hurt the overall tone of the movie. Thankfully, the rest of the voice cast are less invasive, with Ming-Na Wen (best known as Dr. Chen in ER, but also as Dr. Aki Ross in the deplorable Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) giving a vulnerable and believable performance as Mulan. A number of great Oriental actors lend their voices to the other characters, most notably Soon-Tek Oh as Mulan's father and Pat Morita as the Emperor.
The film's audio-visual side is extremely impressive, boasting a fabulous score by the late Jerry Goldsmith - in my opinion, among his finest work. It doesn't sound authentically Chinese, instead recalling the feel of golden age Hollywood epics set in Asian countries, but this is not a problem because it successfully reproduces a feeling of grandeur that would probably not have been achieved had more traditional Chinese instruments been used. The songs, by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, are not up to Disney's best but are harmless enough, with one, "Reflection", performed by Lea Salonga (who provides Mulan's singing voice throughout the movie), standing out as the highlight. (The song is also reprised in pop form during the end credits, performed by a pre-fame Christina Aguilera. This was, in fact, the song that got her a deal with RCA, and was wisely omitted from most non-English prints of the film and replaced by an instrumental version performed by Vanessa Mae.) The film also showcases a unique visual style highly inspired by traditional Chinese art and architecture. Those expecting a radical deviation from Disney's normal look will no doubt be disappointed, since enough of the traditional studio look is maintained (especially in the sidekick characters like Mushu) for the departure to not be too radical, but the look is overall extremely appealling, contrasting bold, flat characters with rich painterly backgrounds. The film also marks something of a milestone in terms of the integration of CG into 2D animation, as computers were used both to create most of the crowd scenes and to give the backgrounds extra depth. In a nice touch, Mulan and her father were both animated by the same team, supervised by Mark Henn, whose previous credits include young Simba in The Lion King and Princess Jasmine in Aladdin. This results in a genuine impression of them being related to one another and helps make their scenes together seem cohesive.
Mulan originally showed up as part of Disney's "Gold Collection", a short-lived range of DVDs with varying quality with regard to image transfers and number of bonus features, but usually leaning towards the bottom end of both categories. In the US, Mulan was given a non-anamorphic, film-sourced transfer and a handful of minor bonus features (a trailer and two music videos), and was available for a limited time only. In Europe, Mulan showed up under the regular "Walt Disney Classics" label and lost its extras but gained a rather pleasant anamorphic transfer.
I should probably point out that the aspect ratio of this release is 1.66:1, the same as virtually all DVDs of Disney films released after 1978. This is the native ratio of Disney's computer ink and paint "CAPS" process (and, conveniently enough, roughly corresponds with the dimensions of animation paper). The original non-anamorphic US release was over-matted slightly to 1.85:1, preserving the ratio of the film's theatrical exhibition, whereas the anamorphic European and Australian releases were matted slightly less, at 1.78:1. This new presentation makes the film look slightly less cramped, but because the composition is fairly loose anyway it makes little difference.
This new special edition gives Mulan a digitally sourced transfer for the first time, and the results are a mixed blessing. I have always been critical of digital transfers because the lack of grain and telecine wobble almost always results in an unnaturally static image, looking more like a digital video than what most people associate with movies. For the first 50 minutes, the transfer looks very nice, with an agreeable level of sharpness, only a minor amount of edge enhancement and colours that are much richer than those on the previous releases. There is also remarkably little of the unsightly colour banding that is so often prevalent in digital transfers. Then, suddenly, everything changes. At almost the exact moment that the timer hits 50 minutes, the image suddenly becomes noticeably softer and the edge enhancement becomes much more severe, to the extent that triple halos are visible around the now smudged outlines at times. Instances of colour banding also become more frequent and more pronounced. The difference is like night and day and lasts for the remainder of the movie. Sadly, this proves to be its downfall and, if you only want the film and don't care about the extras, I would recommend that you try to track down a European or Australian copy of the original bare-bones release instead (the UK release is cut, and although an uncut batch mistakenly made their way on to store shelves, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to get an unmolested copy).
This new edition contains the same English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that was included on the previous release. It is standard Disney fare - solid without being outstanding. The Hun charge on the snowy mountains towards the end of the second act is quite impressive, with extensive use of both the rear channels and the subwoofer, but few other sequences demonstrate this much speaker action. It is simply a good, enveloping mix with no clarity problems.
French, Spanish and Mandarin dubs are also included. The Mandarin dub is something quite special, not only because it has been handled so well that it could be mistaken for the film's original language, but because this is the language that the characters would have spoken in real life. It also does the film's legitimacy some good by replacing Eddie Murphy's voice with one that is much more indigenous. Interestingly enough, this dub also features Jackie Chan as the voice of Shang. Well worth listening to, this dub is an excellent inclusion and qualifies as something of a bonus feature in its own right. I ended up watching the entire film with this track selected and enjoyed it immensely.
English subtitles are included (although, annoyingly, only for the film and not for any of the extras), and while they are perfectly legible, they are annoyingly large, covering up a significant portion of the image.
Deleted scenes - Six sequences are included, each with an introduction by various members of the crew. These can be played individually or as one. For the most part these scenes are presented in black and white storyboard form, although some, including one of the three alternate openings, are presented in colour. With a total running time of 23 minutes, this is a pretty substantial feature.
Music Videos - Four music videos are featured here, two old and two new. The old ones, which appeared on the original US Mulan DVD, are two rather cringe-worthy affairs: "True To Your Heart" featuring featuring Stevie Wonder duetting with boy band 98°, and "Reflection", featuring an almost unrecognizable Christina Aguilera. The new music videos are even more disturbing, the first being a Chinese video for "I'll Make a Man Out of You" featuring Jackie Chan, and the second being a new rendition of "True To Your Heart" with a young woman named "Raven". This one is even worse than the Stevie Wonder/98° affair.
DisneyPedia: Mulan's World - This fairly trite affair, narrated by an Eddie Murphy sound-alike (probably Mark Moseley, who provided Mushu's voice in the god-awful sequel), serves as a child-friendly introduction to Chinese culture and is along the lines of previous "DisneyPedia" features. Personally I have never liked features like these, but I suppose some people might find them interesting.
Audio Commentary - The commentary features directors Barry Cook Tony Bancroft and producer Pam Coats. A slightly more subdued affair than most Disney tracks, plenty of information is conveyed and there is an abundance of name-checking, it picks up as it goes along but gets off to a slow start.
Fun Facts - The final feature on Disc 1 is a two-minute montage featuring some very poor quality video footage of the crew at work, with various pieces of trivia appearing on the screen. Why the "trivia track" was pared down to this length instead of going for a full-length effort like the one included on Aladdin is a mystery to me.
This disc is split into two sections, "Music & More" and "Backstage Disney". As it turns out, the former contains only one feature, making the "More" aspect a little baffling:
Music Video - This is an alternate riff on the Christina Aguilera video featured on Disc 1, only the song is in Spanish and Christina has been replaced by another young lady. It seems a little odd that this video is sitting all on its own on Disc 2 when the others are all contained on the first disc.
"Backstage Disney" is a significantly more lavish affair, featuring a number of different sections split into various sub-sections:
The Journey Begins covers the film's genesis, beginning with "Discovering Mulan", which details the crew's visit to China for inspiration and research. Up next is "The Ballad of Hua Mulan", a narrated version of the original poem upon which the film is based, set to various pieces of visual development artwork. Two "Early Presentation Reels" complete this section, one from 1995 and one from 1996.
Story Artists' Journey begins with "Finding Mulan", which covers the changes made to the story and character of Mulan to make her more appealing. One of the more introspective features on the disc, this is one of the few that actually goes a little deeper and discusses the more story-centric aspects of the film.
This section also includes a Storyboard to Film Comparison, with an introduction by co-director Tony Bancroft, which shows a split-screen comparison of Chris Sanders' storyboards for the sequence in which Mushu tries to awaken the stone dragon, against the finished animation.
Design begins with "Art Design", which covers the look of the film and the ideas behind it. "Character Design", unsurprisingly, focuses on the deliberately simplistic look of the characters. "Ballad of Color" covers the film's colour styling, including the characters' costumes and the predominant hues of various scenes. Finally, this section includes a number of image galleries, covering Character Design, Visual Development and Backgrounds/Layouts. These galleries are very large, with a huge number of images in each section, especially the ones devoted to the characters.
Production begins with two production demonstrations, one for the scene in which Mushu awakens and the other for the scene where Mulan encounters the Matchmaker. Each is split into four different stages (story sketch, rough animation, clean-up animation and effects, and final colour) and they can be played individually or all of them straight through. "The Hun Charge" covers the way that computer animation was used to simplify the production of the impressive Hun horseback charge towards the end of the film's second act. Finally, "Digital Dim Sun" covers the use of CG animation to augment the various crowd scenes.
Music has only one featurette, "Songs of Mulan", which covers the various musical numbers and their importance within the framework of the story.
International Mulan begins with "Mulan's International Journey", an interesting look at the process of dubbing Disney films into different languages and the ideology applied to it. Also included is a "Multi-Language Reel", which plays the song "I'll Make a Man Out of You", with each line in a different language. Finally, a large Publicity Art gallery is included, with various poster designs, most of which are much more interesting and expressive than the design used for the cover of this DVD. Annoyingly, the film's theatrical trailer is nowhere to be seen.
It is something of a shame that, after the success of the extras on the Aladdin Platinum Edition, which were more in line with a full-length documentary, Disney have reverted to the lightweight style of The Lion King, with a number of short, shallow featurettes covering different aspects of the production. These extras are all pretty interesting, but many of them feel as if they only scratch the surface.
Mulan is, ultimately, not the greatest Disney movie by any stretch of the imagination, failing to hold a candle to classics like Pinocchio and Dumbo, but it is an enjoyable affair that stands head and shoulders above contemporaries like the dreary Pocahontas and irritating Tarzan. This special edition package is reasonably pleasing, although its transfer is a bit disappointing and the extras cannot compare to those on, for example, the Aladdin Platinum Edition. Still, if you didn't pick up the film's original DVD release (now out of print) or are interested in learning a little more about its production, this set is definitely worth the purchase.
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