Mulan: Special Edition

Despite the decline in the last decade of the Disney feature animation dynasty, there have been a few gems to enchant us. Following Simba’s triumph at Pride Rock, Disney tinkered with hokey hunchbacks, gospelized Greek heroes and painfully distorted attempts at Native American history. Thankfully someone realized it was time to get back to stories with some depth and life. The answer was the stunning Mulan. The story is a simple but powerful one, the characters are vibrant and exciting, and the animation is “poetic simplicity”, making the end result classic Disney animation. Based on a legendary ballad set in ancient Chinese history, Mulan is the story of a girl who places her family's importance above her place in society. Mulan doesn’t fit into the place that the world has carved out for her - women are to be silent and respectful, graceful and demure. So adamant are these rules that were a women to go beyond her limits and, say, take on duties meant for men, it would bear the penalty of death. Mulan, an only child, struggles to please her parents but finds it difficult to become something she’s not.

When the empire is threatened by a Hun invasion, the Emperor of China calls for each family to send one person to join the army. Even though he is older and has a debilitating injury, Mulan's father has no son and so he must go to war. In a painful decision, Mulan puts her own life on the line for her father by dressing as a man and secretly going to war in his place. As a woman in a man’s world she must rely on her intellect and strength of will to overcome the hurdles she will face.

The characters are an imperial sized part of what makes Mulan so enjoyable. When characters are too serious, as in the overbearing Pocahantas, the movie drags. But Mulan’s cast balances perfectly between comedy and substance. In the tradition of Aladdin’s Genie, Mulan has some magical assistance from a miniature dragon, Mushu The Demoted One. Brilliantly voiced by Eddie Murphy (who has proven lately that he should stick to voice work instead of live action), Mushu selfishly tries to redeem himself in the eyes of Mulan’s ancestors by trying to make Mulan a war hero while protecting her on her journey. Other famous voices complete the perfectly voice-cast characters, including Pat Morita as the Emperor, George Takei as Mulan’s ancestor, and Ming-Na as Mulan.

Like most good Disney animated films, music plays a major role. After the crazy tuneful flailing that was Hercules, it was good to see Mulan return to the more traditional musical style. The songs in Mulan are moving and fit seamlessly into the story. There is a final number at the end of the movie that makes seems to have been the inspiration for Shrek’s zany, out of place, musical finales, but even that works as a way of ending the movie on an upbeat note. The score is also phenomenal, providing several moments that send tingles through your skin and shivers down your spine.

There’s something truly beautiful about the artistry of good hand drawn animation. It’s a shame that most of the world is abandoning it these days for hyper-visualized CGI. Watching this film is an uplifiting experience, but at the end it leaves me depressed that Disney isn’t using the format anymore, except for horribly unnecessary, money-mongering, straight to video sequels. Mulan is an astonishing achievement that, in its own right, outshines most other animated films, 3D or otherwise. It’s never a good omen when the first thing to greet you on a Disney DVD is a trailer for the direct-to-video sequel to the spectacular move that you know you’re about to watch. Nevertheless, there it was in all its annoying glory: “Mulan II…coming early 2005”. Restraining my gag reflex, I pushed on through what ended up being a pretty excellent package.

Immediately noticeable is that this is not the “Disney Platinum Extra Special Super Duper Edition” like the most recent release of Aladdin. It stands to reason that a movie this great will have its time somewhere around its tenth anniversary. Nevertheless there is quite a bit of enjoyable special material to breeze through in this two disc set.

It just wouldn’t be a Disney DVD without pop music videos! Most are leftovers from Disney Channel specials that aired to promote the film when it when it was first released in theaters in 1998. As such, we are treated to pre-slutfest Christina Aguilera belting out “Reflection” and a pre-Jessica Nick Lachey with his 98º buddies crooning “True to Your Heart”. The biggest surprise is the Jackie Chan music video. No, you read that right. Jackie Chan music video. Having done the voice of Li Shang for the Mandarin Chinese dub, he also sang Shang’s solo. Even more surprising is that he’s a pretty good singer. Who knew?

I’m not a huge fan of deleted scenes from animated movies since they’re usually nothing more than grainy storyboard drawings and crusty audio. Someone finally realized that this doesn’t work so well, so this time around the collection of clips in the DVD have interesting introductions that give context and redeem them as an extra feature.

Some of the film’s directors and producers got together to record a commentary. Given the artistic depth of Mulan, it’s not surprising that they spend much of the time expounding on the creative intricacies and techniques that went into researching and creating the film. They aren’t hoity-toity about it, and they do throw in a lot of fun trivia, making it a great way to re-watch the film.

The second disc feels a little slim on content, but what is there is anything but fluff. One of my personal favorites are the scenes that let you switch between storyboards, rough shots and finished shots while the sequence is playing. Another of my favorites is a clip of the film’s song “Be A Man” which features a constant change through the various languages into which the movie was transposed, showing the international appeal and success of the film. There is plenty of background on the character designs, artistic choices and the overall process of the making of the movie to be viewed as well. As the icing on the cake, Disney has scattered little tidbits throughout the various menus, such as publicity stills and the DisneyPedia - a guide to the history behind the characters, stories, and locations of the film.

If the Platinum release of Aladdin is any indication, the equivalent release for Mulan will likely take three discs and I’m already looking forward to it. In the meantime, this special edition is a must have for any DVD collection.