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Thoroughly Modern Mulan

As the Disney sequel machine rolls ever onward, many fans have turned on the Mouse for what they consider its crass commercial exploitation of classic films. This argument has considerable plausibility in the case of projects like The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. I mean, how does that work? The wisecracking gargoyles already have Victor Hugo’s corpse spinning up a storm; it is likely to burst from its grave and dance a jig any day now.

ImageNot all sequels have to be bad news, though. Some of the Disney films do lend themselves to further adventures, and subsequent outings in the Lion King and Aladdin franchises have been fairly successful, if not quite classics themselves. The opportunity to spend more time with Disney’s memorable characters is always welcome, even on lesser occasions. With that in mind, I looked forward to Mulan II, a sequel to perhaps the last truly great Disney musical adventure. You can’t go wrong with more epic tales of warrior maidens in ancient China, can you? Or so I thought. Little did I know that Gloria Steinem was ghostwriting this outing.

The original Mulan was a grand adventure with fun songs, clever jokes, and strong action all set intoxicatingly against the backdrop of medieval China. While not particularly deep, its generally accurate story about protecting China from a Mongol invasion appealed strongly to the history and war-film buff in me. Mulan herself was a great heroine to root for: stalwart and brave but also modest, sweet and never overbearing. The sequel, alas, manages to undermine much of its predecessor’s goodwill by badly mangling most of these elements. Although there is still some good action, the songs are forgettable, the jokes are weak, the story is ludicrous, and Mulan herself has become a tediously self-righteous and self-absorbed proselytizer. In fact, the whole film is hijacked by a thunderously insistent feminist agenda that seems a bit naïve even today and outright stupid in the context of ancient China. Chinese sociology students would be well advised to stay far away from this one for sanity’s sake.

The inanity kicks off with the heroic soldier Shang finally proposing to an overjoyed Mulan (ER‘s Ming Na), while the cocky little dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy clone) enjoys lording it over the ancestors from his esteemed position as Mulan’s guardian. However, Mushu discovers to his alarm that once Mulan marries her guardianship will be assumed by Shang’s ancestors, sinking him back to errand boy status. Taking a cue from Mulan’s parents, Mushu sizes up the couple as a poor match and begins plotting to undo their union—for Mulan’s benefit, of course, but also for his own. Meanwhile, the Emperor (Miyagi-san!) assigns Shang and Mulan the task of escorting three of his daughters to the neighboring kingdom of Qui Gong, where they will be married off in order to seal an alliance that will ward off a pending Mongol attack. Mulan is none too happy about this arranged marriage business but decides she must honor her duty. Shang and Mulan recruit their old comrades-in-arms: gruff, one-eyed Yao, lanky jokester Ling, and gentle giant Chien-Po, who are lamenting their inability to find wives. On the journey, the three of them fall in love with the princesses Mei, Ting Ting, and Su respectively.

I’ll pause for a moment to let you recover your astonished wits at that wildly unpredictable and oh-so-believable development…

OK? To Shang and the audience’s irritation, all the womenfolk improbably subscribe to the Mulan-led mantra “My duty is to my heart” (wasn’t that Woody Allen’s excuse when he threw over Mia Farrow?) and begin protesting the mission objective. This and Mushu’s underhanded scheming begin to drive a wedge between our betrothed heroes. Then, when bandits attack the party, Shang falls to his apparent death from a collapsing bridge. Assuming command, Mulan finally reaches Qui Gong and offers her hand in marriage, claiming the princesses died en route. This leads to a final showdown at the Qui Gong palace. Not with the Mongols, though, who seem to have fallen down a dark plot hole somewhere.

Apart from Eddie Murphy, who as Shrek‘s Donkey has found a more remunerative way to be excruciatingly annoying, the entire main cast returns from the first film. There are no real standouts, but they all acquit themselves adequately. Ming Na turns in another strong performance as Mulan, but she’s dragged down by the often silly dialogue. I realize the producers probably thought they were providing young girls with a strong role model in Mulan, and certainly in some ways they have, but all the over-the-top stumping for women’s lib is preposterously out of place in ancient China. The three princesses are the least credible characters, though. The notion that they would so easily and flagrantly defy their father the Emperor is farcical at best. Also hard to swallow is their yearning to be like “other girls” who are free to let down their hair. Ahem, this is ancient China. Not only do “other girls” have to follow similar (if less stringent) social conventions, they are also dirt poor and have the tips of the social ladder planted firmly in their backs. Real dreamy. Murphy’s replacement does a great job mimicking him, which is good if you like Mushu but not if you don’t. The film also suffers from the absence of a key villain, especially since the hulking Mongol Shan Yu was so memorably menacing in the original.

The highpoint of Mulan II is definitely the animation, which is excellent for a DTV movie, often close to theatrical quality, and miles ahead of the Aladdin sequels. Of course, the smaller budget does show in simplified backgrounds and special effects (particularly an anemic fireworks display), but overall there is little to complain about. The single (!) action scene is handled very smoothly and displays the most intricate fight choreography I’ve seen in a Disney film.

The music doesn’t fare as well this time around, though. The movie opens with a gag-inducing song straight from Sesame Street in which Mulan teaches a bunch of little brats how to be good citizens. There is also the wildly anachronistic song “Like Other Girls,” which protests hair gel and cameras . However, the final song in the credits, “Here Beside Me,” is a beautiful ballad that I wish they’d worked into the movie.

Perhaps heeding fan criticism of the appallingly meager special features on the Aladdin discs, Disney has this time put forth a slightly more respectable package. Note the emphasis on “slightly.” The deleted scenes are all in storyboard form and are mostly dull except for a thrilling ninja attack sequence that was intended to open the film. Maybe they cut it because they thought it was too violent, or maybe they’re just stupid. Next is a video for “Like Other Girls,” and then one of Disney’s lamest DVD games ever in Mushu’s Guess Who, in which you are supposed to guess which character from the movie Mushu is portraying with shadow puppets—guessing is only necessary if your lobotomy was a success. Much more interesting for the kids is The World of Mulan, which explains such elements of Chinese culture as yin and yang, arranged marriages, fans, and the real legend of Mulan. Voices of Mulan introduces us to the cast, though there is no mention of the scab filling in for Murphy. Finally, there is a Chinese zodiac that tells you what animal represents you. And no I won’t tell you what it said about me, though it does seem fairly accurate.

Mulan II was simply a misguided effort from the moment the script was approved. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a social agenda so obviously pushed in a Disney film before. It’s dull and anachronistic and seems a bit like a swipe at the very culture the film is supposedly trying to represent faithfully. Of course, the first film makes the point that women can do anything men can, but in a much smoother and believable fashion that serves the plot rather than undermining it, as happens here. This is one case where I wish Disney had just given us more of the same. Mulan II isn’t terrible, but it’s not a rousing adventure like its predecessor, either. Mulan fanatics may want to check it out, but anyone else will likely be disappointed. At least this will hopefully bring an end to Mushu’s career. Now, does anyone have any dirt on Donkey?

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