Mulan: Looking back at the 1998 animation
Katie Smith-Wong | On 10, Sep 2020
Director: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
Cast: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer
Watch Mulan (1998) online in the UK: Disney+ / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Released in 1998, Disney’s animated adaptation of Mulan highlights an ensemble cast featuring Ming-Na Wen as the eponymous heroine, with renowned actors such as Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer and James Hong in supporting roles.
When Mulan was first released, Disney hoped that the film would help them gain success in the lucrative Chinese market and appease relations with the Chinese government after the release of Dalai Lama biography Kundun. However, its release was downplayed in favour of local films and Chinese audiences criticised the inaccuracy of Disney’s adaptation. Nearly 20 years on, the flaws are even more apparent.
From the outset, it is creatively obvious that Mulan is a production led by Caucasian filmmakers. Prioritising audiences over accuracy, the film has a child-friendly creative direction that focuses more on its entertainment value rather than faithfulness to the original tale. As a result, the bold songs and Murphy’s hapless sidekick Mushu essentially upstage Mulan and her endeavours, making her a casualty in her own film.
In addition, it is almost hard to watch the 1998 version of Mulan now as its sexist treatment of women highlights how badly the film has aged. In this version, women are seen as inferior and expected to be quiet in the presence of men, while James Hong’s traditionalist imperial adviser Chi Fu doesn’t help matters with his blatant chauvinism. This transparent message practically hinders Mulan’s character development, as the negativity from the supporting characters reinforces the idea that she – initially seen as a clumsy, outspoken and insecure woman – is useless.
This serves to drive Mulan’s need to succeed. She contends with the playground bullying from her fellow recruits and the brutal training, proving that she doesn’t need a man to “do something right”. She doesn’t even act on her implicit feelings towards Shang (BD Wong), choosing to view him as her superior rather than a love interest. Her actions and demeanour subsequently provide a feminist anchor in an age where Disney Princesses needed their Prince Charming for their happily ever after.
Although Mulan’s somewhat simplistic characters and comedic elements are visually audience-friendly, the use of computer animation lifts the battle scenes into complex, thrilling sequences while the film’s bright colour palette offers a visual richness. In terms of cast, the majority of Mulan’s vocal performances are overly brash, with Murphy, Hong and Harvey Fierstein making a lasting impression. In comparison, Wen offers heart and subtle determination, as do Wong and the late Pat Morita, who plays the Emperor.
Overall, Mulan feels like a misstep in terms of representing Chinese culture. Although it has inspiring values worth promoting through its heroine, they are eclipsed by the film’s “need” to entertain.
Mulan (1998) is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.