Mulan (1998)

Yin & Yang

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Mulan is one of my favourite films in the Disney animated canon.  A movie which is rich in layers and characterisation topped with brilliant songs and great action, there’s barely a single minute that doesn’t leave me enthralled. The titular heroine herself is a unique specimen in the canon of female Disney protagonists. For one she actually has living parents and contrary to the likes of Belle or Ariel, Mulan is not a free spirit. She is a clumsy, unpunctual, clutz, and a bit of a tomboy who doesn’t fit the gender norms society would have expected of her at the time as she tries to find her place in the world. She is also an adult who still possesses some childlike tendencies, perhaps most memorably and heart-warmingly when she unexpectedly hugs the Emperor of China. Mulan is also under the Disney princess brand even though she has no royal lineage? – Money talks.

Mulan is one of many examples throughout history of women disguised as men in combat roles, albeit in the case of Hua Mulan being one of disputed historicity. For many western children, a film like this would be their first introduction to Chinese culture and history beyond what they would see in a Chinese takeaway. I’m not Chinese so I can’t atone for well the film represents the culture. From a historical accuracy perspective, however, the film presents the Huns being a threat during the film’s setting of 600AD (Tang Dynasty) when they were actually active several centuries prior to that. Likewise, fireworks and gun powder wouldn’t come along until the 9th century (also Mulan’s family owns a pet dog?). – Embrace it in a charmingly inaccurate Cecil B. DeMille way.

Mulan is a classic heroes’ journey as she begins the film within the familiarity of her village but soon has a call to adventure into the unknown, only to eventually return to her village, a transformed individual. Disney films often being at the ire of snooty left-wing academics due to their highly archetypal nature rooted in the conventions of storytelling which are often dismissed as passé and cliché formulas of storytelling in favour of the deconstruction of myths. Thus I have no desire to see a live-action remake of Mulan in the age of woke Hollywood. In relation to the dreaded “F” word of feminism, I’ll reference an unlikely source in the form of Knuckles the Echidna:

“You know Amy, any time someone brings attention to the breaking of gender roles, it ultimately undermines the concept of gender equality by implying that this is an exception and not the status quo.”

Ok, Mulan is a film which is guilty of this itself with irony-laden songs such as Honour To Us All and A Girl Worth Fighting For which would normally lead one to groan with their intentionally un-pc lyrics and little visual accompaniments such as Mulan unintentionally wielding the umbrella like a sword during Honour To us All, but I’m never left with the impression the film is propagating an agenda. Mulan’s journey was never some feminist quest to prove a woman can do anything a man can do and stick it to the patriarchy – rather it was to preserve her father’s and by extension her family’s honour. Mulan doesn’t want to change how her society works, but rather just cheat its conformist rules.

Hollywood has a modern tendency to portray female characters whom are just women acting like aggressive men who can beat up hordes of bad guys and lack any sense of femininity. Mulan is not like that and film demonstrates her lack of physical strength and demonstrates how she has to rely on her mental capabilities to survive. Mulan figures out how to climb the pole and retrieve the arrow with the stone slabs of strength and discipline not with physical strength but with ingenuity, by wrapping the ropes attached to the slabs around the pole as an aid to climb it. Some suspension of disbelief is required that no one in the boot camp isn’t more suspicious that Mulan’s alias Ping is not a man, even as an effeminate one at that (one way the animators got around this is by having Mulan’s face shape change when she is dressed as Ping). To use a symbol of ancient Chinese philosophy, Mulan’s balancing of masculine and feminine is akin to the balancing of the yin and yang.

“The quickest way to the emperor is through that pass. Besides, the little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.”

From the opening shot of The Great Wall, Mulan captures an epic scope on par with some of the best live-action epics. The colour scheme throughout the film is a thing of beauty complete with many a fantastic shot or creative transition. Mulan was the first time a Disney movie dealt with warfare with the sequence involving the soldiers discovering the village following a genocide (after such a joyous upbeat song) being one of the darkest Disney moments. Likewise, the beginning of the battle sequence on the mountain as Shan-Yu and his men appear over the hill is reminiscent to the film Zulu (that avalanche sequence breaks many laws of physics but no less exciting). The film’s scope reaches a peak with the film’s climactic money shot of Mulan jumping of the palace roof in the Forbidden City with fireworks behind her. The only criticism I have for the animation is the repetition of very similar character models in the Chinese and Hun armies as well as in the Forbidden City. Although the appearance of these models on screen is very limited it’s a bit odd whenever I took notice of it.

Jerry Goldsmith’s East Asian influenced score is among the strongest of his career. The track titled Haircut is a piece of synth to die for! How does a piece of music from 1998 sound like it was recorded for a movie made in 1985? None of the musical numbers in Mulan fail in their grand, sweeping nature. The film’s classic Disney “I desire more” ballad in the form of Reflection (how did she wipe away all that makeup with on rub of her sleeve?) helps to signify Mulan’s vulnerability. Yet Mulan’s greatest musical accomplishment is the hair raising I’ll Make a Man Out of You, the militaristic training montage ballad with its larger than life lyrics and memorable one-liners from the supporting characters – it can proudly stand among the likes of the Rocky IV soundtrack as motivational music to get you out of any rut.

The other area where Mulan surprisingly exceeds is the comedy as one of the funnier Disney animated films, managing to balance the laughs with the high stakes drama. Eddie Murphy as Mushu doesn’t surpass Robin Williams in Aladdin but his antics and many memorable quotes give him one of his best career roles. However I find the film’s funniest moments come from Mulan’s attempts to act manly – it’s not a body swap comedy without a scene in which the character’s cover is almost blown when they are out of costume (underwear with hearts on it, anachronism much?). The only tonal criticism I would levy at the film is the end credits song True To Your Heart, an upbeat pop song which comes out of left field after Mulan’s heartfelt reunion with her father and family. A good Stevie Wonder jam but it feels out of place.

The film’s villain Shan-Yu is a two-dimensional bad guy but is still quite entertaining from how overtly evil he and his falcon companion are, with Shan-Yu himself being complete with fangs and muted colours. I also love how his scenes end with him delivering a spine chilling message (“How many men does it take to deliver a message?” – oh, badass!). He’s not the main source of conflict in the film so his two-dimensional personality doesn’t interfere with the film. However, he does display one revealing character moment during the film’s climax in which upon discovering Mulan was the solider from the battlefield who took out his army, in an ironic twist he is the only character in the film who does not belittle Mulan for being a woman.

Thug Life

Mulan’s world is populated with many great characters from the badass, no-nonsense general and love interest to Mulan, Li Shang (those abs are body goals) of whom it turns out is a bit socially awkward when it comes to women. Mulan’s dignified father Fa Zhou on the other hand is best summed up in the powerful shot of his attempt to walk without his aid and disguise his limp to accept his conscription assignment. Although absent for most of the film, he is at the film’s heart as the instigator of Mulan’s journey (“I know my place! It is time you learned yours!”). The question does have to be raised if the military would actually have this old, physically weak man on the battlefield but rather to act as a general due to the fact that he appears to be a well-known figure at the boot camp and thus likely respected and held in high esteem. I do also adore the trio of soldiers – the fiery voiced Yao (thank you Harvey Feinstein), the childlike Ling and the pacifist Chein with their camaraderie and failure to act like tough guys and lady killers. Then there is the slimy pencil pusher Chi-Fu, the film’s love to hate character. I like how he is given some humanising moments like his picture with the Emperor on his desk and his claim that he apparently has “a girl back home who’s not like any other”. Even The Emperor of China himself is full of wisdom and memorable quotations worthy of Confucius himself.

“The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all”

Mouse In Manhattan (1945)

These Little Town Blues…

Tom & Jerry were a defining part of my childhood. I could spend hours watching T&J shorts on Cartoon Network when I was younger and to be honest, this is my favourite; was then and still is now. As a kid, I would always get excited when this short came on TV.

Mouse in Manhattan is not a traditional Tom & Jerry short at all; there are no chases or the carnage you would usually associate with Tom & Jerry. It begins with Jerry leaving his life in the country in favor of the bright lights and Broadway of New York City. Tom only appears briefly at the beginning and at the end but Jerry leaves him a note showing that the two could be friends from time to time. The rest of the cartoon involves Jerry’s escapades in the Big Apple and plays out like a silent film with Jerry succumbing to the odd pratfall in the vein of Keaton or Chaplin; it’s all such fun to watch. Take the moment when Jerry is dancing and ice skating with the dolls on the table; could a piece of animation be more beautiful? During the short things go from really romantic to really dark quick but it all ends well. They still throw a black face joke in there with Jerry’s head being put into a container of shoe polish. I can tell you right not that these moments were left intact when showing these cartoons on the UK Cartoon Network and Boomerang when I was a child.

The locations Jerry visits in New York such as Grand Central Station appear very empty but who cares, just look at the beauty of it! Those painted backdrops have such scope to them. What really makes Mouse in Manhattan perfection, however, is the music. You might recognize it from the opening credits of My Man Godfrey but this rendition of” Manhattan Serenade” I feel is superior and I doubt could ever be topped. Tom and Jerry shorts always evoke nostalgia in me but Mouse in Manhattan just evokes that feeling to a far greater degree.

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Dog Day Afternoon

I only had the pleasure of watching many of the famous Disney classics for the first time last December and while I enjoyed almost all of them, Lady and the Tramp was one I absolutely fell in love with. One of the aspects which makes Lady and the Tramp great is its ability to pull off a love story not only free of cliches but also manages to feel fresh. Going into this movie I was concerned that it would the typical high-class girl falls in love with a low-class guy (well dogs in this case) but I was very pleasantly surprised. Both Lady and Tramp are believable characters but display subtle dog traits which I didn’t even notice the first time I watched the film. Perhaps the most humorous of these would be the fact the dogs in the film refer to Lady’s owners and “Jim Dear” and “Darling” as this is what the two call each other throughout the film. The little details like this warrant Lady and the Tramp as a film worthy of multiple viewings.

Lady and the Tramp was the first animated produced in CinemaScope and they sure took advantage of the new format. The whole movie is one big ignition of the senses; could a movie be more relaxing to watch than this? Just like Lady I don’t want this seemingly perfect world of early 1900’s Americana to be altered in any way; notice throughout the entire the film every day is filled bright sunshine and it only starts to rain when things hit their worst. The date sequence also surprised me greatly; having seen it parodied to death my entire life I didn’t think it would have anything to offer me; yet their entire date had me awe and left me breathless. The soundtrack also offers some of the most memorable compositions and songs in Disney history, perfectly capturing the essence of falling in love. Lady And The Tramp is an absolute heart melting charmer If I ever saw one and my personal favourite animated Disney film from Walt’s era.

The Simpsons: Season 3: Episode 17; Home At The Bat (1992)

The Pride of the Simpsons

After recently re-watching the first nine seasons or what fans now refer to as the golden age I have come to the decision that Homer at the Bat is my favourite episode of The Simpsons.

I should point out that I’m not a sports fan (far from it as a matter of fact) and due to cultural reasons I do not know who any of these baseball stars are as the sport is not popular in the UK. However, this made me realise just what made the guest appearances during The Simpsons glory days so great. Even if you’re not familiar with a celebrity you can still enjoy their appearance on the show as they manage to give them their own unique comic, down to Earth personalities. Here there are no fewer nine guest stars and they’re all equally memorable and funny. However what also astounds me is how each of these guest stars has their own story arc and all this within the confines of 22 minutes. There is even an early exposure to Barney Gumble being a secret intellectual; leave it to The Simpsons to get the viewer interested in who was England’s greatest prime minister. There is so much going on in this episode yet the show’s creators successfully get it all in without any of it feeling forced. There’s enough material here to make several episodes.

Homer at the Bat is one of the more surreal episodes of The Simpsons’ glory days and they even manage to summarise this during the end credits in one catchy song (a parody of Talkin’ Baseball by Terry Cashman). Like many Simpsons’ parodies it has become more famous than its source and like the best Simpsons’ songs, a whole generation can recite it off by heart.

The Simpsons: Season 7: Episode 21; 22 Short Films About Springfield (1996)

Seeeeymoooour!

I can narrow down the two Simpsons episodes which I quote the most in daily life; A Star Is Burns and 22 Short Films about Springfield. Half of my favourite Simpsons’ quotes come from these two episodes alone.

This episode has not only my all-time favourite Simpsons’ moment but also possibly my favourite moment in TV history; I am indeed talking about the greatness that is the Skinner and Superintendent skit. I can recall several instances in which myself and people I’ve known have recited this scene in its entirety from memory. As a kid, I didn’t get the humour of the scene but can recall my parents and older brother laughing hysterically at it. Now that I’m older I constantly watch this scene over and over again. But do you know what’s the funniest thing (well aside from the aforementioned scene) it’s the little differences. Such as the episode’s parody of Pulp Fiction’s “Muthaf**ka” scene, with Chief Wiggum stating “Hey I know you!”; the complete opposite of what is said in the scene from Pulp Fiction. Like the greatest of Simpsons’ gags, it works on so many levels. Why did they never make another episode like this? I guess this one was as close to perfection as it gets that they could never top it.