Some might not realize how difficult it is to get themes of gender defiance and honor across to a younger audience through storytelling, where it's easy to lose interest while gaining a levelheaded impression on empowerment and capability. Disney took a confident step up in the late-'90s with Mulan by spearheading a rejuvenated outlook on this perspective, depicting a rebellious woman who, while confined to her role during the Han Dynasty in China, covertly disguises herself as a man so she might take up arms during wartime. While not without flaws that risk taking mature viewers out of the moment, from overzealous dragons to excessively zany action, the House of Mouse concocted an inspirational, enduring recipe that still confidently -- and bracingly -- challenges the "princess" mantra. Painterly environments and whimsical flourishes dress the somewhat serious chronicle, sidestepping those lighter yarns of damsels in distress and princes who play a crucial part in saving the day.
The story, loosely taken from an old Chinese ballad, begins with an ungraceful and candid girl, Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), who lacks the submissiveness of other women in her village. The daughter of a weathered warrior whose days of battle are long behind him, she begrudgingly tries to assimilate to the culture's ideals for women, namely preparing to be evaluated by potential marriage suitors. During the process, word arrives of the Huns invading China, and the call to battle demands that a male from each household must go to war for the Imperial Army. Mulan, frustrated with her role as a woman and protective of her father, disguises her appearance and claims the place for her family, under the alias of "Ping". She's not alone, though: the spirits of her ancestors feel she will need help in her rush of independence, so they send a guardian dragon, Mushu (Eddie Murphy), to assist in her journey. Seeing as how she knows next to nothing about fighting and has a secret to uphold around a group of gruff men, they're not exactly wrong.
Straightforward and foreseeable even by Disney's standards, Mulan's plot follows the rhythm of a typical hero's journey by introducing someone unskilled, observing how they train, and then testing their mettle with an anticipated "big show" at the end. The writing's portrayal of a woman breaking from the period's status quo enhances that simplicity, though; the scornful looks from her captain, Li Shang (BD Wong), might predictably light a fire under "Ping" to push harder while sprinting and climbing, but the resulting scenes where she embraces the challenge offer vibrant displays of hand-drawn artistry, where measured triumphs amid seasonal changes avoid turning her transformation into something too far-fetched. There's also a good bit of conventional humor revolving around her secret and how she avoids a trio of comic-relief oafs, as well as how an out-of-place, miscast Mushu tries to help (his trivial purpose in this Disney film is quite clear), but they're bolstered by Mulan's resilience to maintain her family's honor.
Mulan becomes a brisk, beautiful vehicle for those clear-cut intentions though, where ancient Chinese practices and spirited locations provide an ideal mythic framework for an adventure -- and, yeah, a song or two -- about staying true to identity and self-determination. While the historical Chinese backdrop isn't used much beyond adding perfunctory context to a woman seeking individuality while disguised as a man, a missed opportunity for exploring richer lineage, the determination our heroine expresses provides an ample-enough message of confidence and bravery for this Disney film's endeavors. As it moves along, it's mostly successful in achieving that folk-tale grandness it sets out to achieve, especially upon Mulan's crowning moment as "Ping" where she showcases her inherent resourcefulness that has nothing at all to do with masculinity or femininity, just gumption. That's the charming business it gets down to, where a well-drawn hero answers the call to make the most of an epic-scaled situation and not be confined by gender perceptions.
One needs to only watch the direct-to-video sequel, Mulan II, to appreciate how well the original takes on action, personality and heartening themes for a wider age range. There's no denying that Disney has the younger female audience more in mind for the follow-up, which takes place a little over a month after the first film's events. A wedding is the focus -- Mulan's wedding, in fact, to the handsome and brave Li Shang. But in the midst of their preparations and parties, an edict arrives from the Chinese Emperor declaring his need for the pair to escort three women, his daughters, to the location where they'll be married. Their matrimony is arranged in the name of allegiance with a neighboring kingdom, and if these events do not happen within three days, the Mongols will invade and conquer China. Mulan, Shang, and their companions will need to press on quickly, if the independent warrior heroine can comply with the daughters' sacrifice for the good of their realm.
Mulan II is, unfortunately, a pretty rough continuation of the story, clearly designed to capitalize on affection for the characters. Along with a juvenile side plot involving Mushu's scheme to break Mulan and Shang up (he's upset because he'll have to go back to being a gong-banger once they get hitched), the charm and energy from the original film are lost within Saturday morning cartoon triteness and some exceptionally on-the-nose dialogue about heroism and true love. It's a shame, too, because the rough idea of a more intriguing sequel -- China's warrior heroine fighting against archaic arranged marriages -- rears its head occasionally through this seventy-minute haze of premarital bickering and unbelievably quick courtships between the daughters and their three goofy companions. Alas, the characterizations are shallow, the tone overtly exaggerated, and the action largely limp until a boisterous final act, where everything tidily and frustratingly resolves itself. Once the brief satisfaction upon hearing the returning cast disappears, it's clear how much it pales in comparison.
Mulan and Mulan II gallop into the Blu-ray arena by way of Disney's "Movie Collection" series, pairing the original successful film with a direct-to-video sequel which likely wouldn't get a release otherwise. A shiny, embossed slipcover replicates the case's front and back artwork, but that's about as far as the design accoutrements go: blue and silver discs inside, no Blu-ray guides, only Disney Move Reward points and other leaflets. The option to select which movie you'd like to see loads upon booting up the disc, and the subsequent menu navigation for both films is nearly identical for both the Blu-ray and the included DVD, which are stacked atop each other in this new standard case design.
Video and Audio:
With these "movie collection" Blu-rays from Disney, there's always the knee-jerk reaction to give them some kind of benefit of the doubt for cramming two films (and all the bonus features) onto one disc. However, bear in mind that the total material presented is just a little over two and a half hours, and the data space on these discs can certainly accommodate for that length. That doesn't really matter in terms of this conversation, though, because Mulan and Mulan II both look fantastic under any circumstances. Mulan buckles down with a 1.66:1-framed 1080p treatment that exhibits dark, sharp lines around the animation, an intensely robust palette with keen representation of the artists' intentions, and elegant frame-by-frame movement that aptly replicates the grandness of scale during Mulan's journey across China. Mulan II's animation isn't as vibrant or polished, but the 1.78:1-framed treatment exhibits the same grasp on clarity and accuracy of the artistry presented.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for this pair of Mulan films charge on the battlefield with gravitas, complimenting the grandness of the visuals with a sprawling, extensive surround presence and razor-sharp effects. Big sound elements like the galloping of hooves thunder from the front side of the stage to the rear, creating a splendid and chest-ratting rush of energy, while subtle but pronounced tidbits like the bang of a gong, the crackle of a stone ear from a statue, and the cascade of rain float between channels for an enveloping experience. Every line of dialogue either rings completely true or just under that with slightly muffled clarity, and once the songs "get down to business", the musical fury of percussion instruments and radiant vocals remain steady-handed from start to finish. Again, there's a noticeable lack of richness when moving to Mulan II's sound design, but the steadfastness of digital presentation continues all the way until the grand finale. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital tracks are also available, along with subtitles in those same languages (as well as both English and English SDH titles).
Fans of Mulan will be both somewhat pleased and disappointed with the special features available here, as the bulk of the extras available on previous editions (click here for DVDTalk's coverage of Mulan, and here for Mulan II's review) have been piled onto this Blu-ray ... yet nothing new makes an appearance. A few minor things didn't made the transition, such as a publicity gallery and a DisneyPedia feature, but this almost-comprehensive slate of extras is quite exploratory and satisfying, if a bit dated:
For Mulan, Classic Backstage Disney incorporates vintage behind-the-scenes material into the supplements, which, in retrospect, explores the construction of the film to a fairly thorough degree. After we've made it through the Mulan Fun Facts (2:13, SD) that offers general trivia bits with some classic-'90s footage of the animation team working, it works through several sub-sections of exploratory material. The Journey Begins (4x3) takes a glimpse into the early creative process through exploring the Hua Mulan ballad and early animated demo reels, while the Story Artists' Journey (4x3). covers how they maneuvered around a few ideas for the character (including the compelling notion of a more melancholy heroine). The Design (4x3) segment notches up the many ways in which Mulan had a rough conceptualization journey over five years, as well as the beauty present in the final product, while Production (4x3) offers step-by-step glimpses at two scenes in the film: Mushu's awakening, and Mulan meeting the matchmaker. Finally, Digital Production (4x3) takes the same piece-by-piece constructive rhythm with a focus on the digital elements used in the charge of the Huns and creating huge crowds.
Also included on this Blu-ray is the Audio Commentary with Producer Pam Coats and Directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, a solid tracks where they reveal the fruits of their research, their artistic compositions, and their balancing act when trying to even out the humor with the deeper dramatic tones. They discuss the difficulty in landing on the right tone for Mulan as a character, reflected in the dichotomy in some of the artistry and musical numbers that they struggled with, as well as many of the easter eggs scattered throughout the film's writings, names, and design flourishes. After that, it's worth exploring the material build around seven Deleted Scenes (22:35, HD) with storyboards and interviews, which offer terrific glimpses in the creative process and aren't just lazily slapped-on removed material. Finally, Classic Music and More collects a series of music videos, and matches them with two earnest featurettes about incorporating Disney's musical lineage into Mulan.
For Mulan II, the features are noticeably less interesting. A quick Classic Backstage Disney: Voices of Mulan (2:54, 4x3) piece shows Ming-Na Wen in the booth while the filmmakes discuss the importance of the returning vocals, while four Deleted Scenes (4x3) and the "(I Wanna Be) Like Other Girls" Music Video by Atomic Kitten brings it hope.
Vibrant animation and a noble, defiant break from the norm brings ancient China to life in Disney's Mulan, a splendid depiction of self-determination and honor through the eyes of a well-drawn heroine. While a cast of shallow supporting characters and occasionally overdone antics keep it from being on of the studio's crowning achievements from the '90s, the message it sends about independence, resourcefulness, family loyalty and following one's heart speak louder within this rousing journey. Let's just say Mulan II, its sequel, is merely tagging along for the ride as an extra in this package (much like Disney's Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame packages), because, really, it's little more than a seventy-minute, youth-minded DTV supplement for those who simply want to spend more time with the original film's characters. Disney have done right by the artistry, though, in both instances: the sharp lines, robust but careful colors, and acute sounds in this high-definition presentation craft elegant eye-candy for fans of the film, even if the special features aren't anything they haven't seen. Highly Recommended.