For a period of time, Disney feature film animation was an unloved wasteland: think The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective. These weren’t reliable family entertainment events so much as they were an opportunity to dump your kids in the mall movie theatre for ninety air-conditioned minutes while you ran errands at Waldenbooks and Merry Go Round. Maybe grabbed something at Orange Julius.
But then The Little Mermaid happened in 1989, launching a string of surefire hits. Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin. The Lion King. Suddenly, Disney animation could do no wrong, unless you were a Pocahontas biographer. As the 1990s tipped toward a new millennium, the artists at Disney worked feverishly on what they were sure would be its next eternally beloved family classic, the movie that kids would watch and rewatch and re-re-watch with characters they would imitate and songs they would play on road trips until their parents cried mercy. You can probably already guess what that guaranteed future masterpiece was.
Yep, that’s right: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Oops. Or as the denizens of Notre Dame de Paris might say: Zut alors.
Okay, so maybe that movie, an animated musical comedy based on Victor Hugo’s 400-page nineteenth-century French novel about torture and obsessive lust, wasn’t the smash hit Disney hoped for. But the funny thing is, around the same time that Disney Animation’s flagship office in California was lavishing top-line attention on Hunchback – music by juggernauts Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, a cast with bona fide movie stars like Demi Moore – creatives at the comparatively unheralded Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida studio were quietly working on a different project.
In between the journeyman’s work of assembling sequences of 4 to 22 minutes to insert in high-profile releases like Aladdin, The Lion King, and, well, Hunchback, the B-team in Orlando spent years developing an animated feature based on an ancient Chinese folk song about a young woman who saves her aged father from the military draft by posing as a man and taking his spot.
With $120 million in ticket sales, the resulting feature landed in the year’s top ten grossing movies and proved to be the more enduring of Disney’s late-1990s releases, with a bright and dynamic visual design and sturdy pro-woman, queer-friendly storytelling. The songs may have felt a little thin at the time, but they’re sticky: if you spend any time around kids you’ve probably heard them belt out “LET’S get DOWN to BIZ-ness.”
It came out twenty-five years ago this month, but there are many reasons why Mulan might never have even gotten to the screen. As recently as 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, industry folks still act surprised when a film full of Asian characters makes a bunch of money. In contrast to her fellow Disney heroines, Mulan wasn’t a princess and her romantic suitor wasn’t among her top priorities.
But for a twentieth-century cartoon about potentially divisive issues, Mulan got a lot of things right. There’s some dazzling AAPI voice talent behind the mic: Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, Lea Salonga. Eddie Murphy’s performance as Mushu isn’t so much a rehearsal for his later sidekick work in Shrek as it is a tarter, funnier improvement on it. And while there’s definitely a binary essentialism at the core of its premise, Mulan’s story tends to shake free of stereotypes – Mulan succeeds neither because she’s a woman nor in spite of it but just because she’s the best at what she does. (And, not for nothing, because her male comrades are willing to assume the traditional roles of women when called upon.) Meanwhile, a song like “A Girl Worth Fighting For” satirically blasts a certain strain of masculine toxicity with such prescience that it might have been recorded yesterday.
Plus, the action sequences are pretty killer.