Monday, March 25, 2024

Walt Disney, part LII: The buck bounds here and there, whilst the doe has narrow eyes, but when the two hares run side by side, how can you tell the female from the male?


Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft
Written by Rita Hsaio, Chris Sanders, Philip LaZebnik, Raymond Singer, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, and Robert D. San Souci

Spoilers: high

Of the 36 entries in Walt Disney's animated "canon" that we've so far covered, Mulan is not the very first one I've liked less than I rememberedI recall, for instance, being bitterly shocked at how much I abhorred The Sword In the Stone.  And maybe that's a fitting parallel, because I can't help but link those two Disney films, or, rather, their protagonists, two legendary heroes from around the 5th century who might've had the very smallest sliver of historical basis, but whose stories would always be remembered, and hence were so heavily and so long ago co-opted by a dominant culture (Han in one case, Anglo-Saxon in the other) that it can take more than passing familiarity to know they've been co-opted.  To be clear, my appreciation for Mulan has not tumbled too far.  It's more like the culmination of a slow process of erosion where I've pretty much always been aware of its flaws, but having to weigh all of them at once hurts it more than I would've expected possible on any film's tenth or twelfth watch.  It is, anyway, the only Disney film that I'd traditionally held securely close to my heart, yet, with this most recent viewing, I had to fall out of love with it a little bit.

Only a little bit.  There's still a lot to love about Mulan, starting with its unprecedentedly active Disney heroinewho's unprecedently active for a Disney protagonist of any gender, as she'd be unprecedently active for a Disney villain, what with her uncontestable claim to being the Disney canon's most prolific onscreen ender of human livesnot to mention as dramatic a father-daughter dynamic as seen since The Little Mermaid.  There is much to admire, as well, in the way that taking on ancient China's legend of the woman who dressed like a man to fight in the war stretched what Disney animation was capable of in 1998 on any number of frontsnarratively, aesthetically, technologically, thematically, representationally, you name it.

At the same time, it reveals the limits, too.  It's not particularly culturally accuratehistorically, it's maybe even worseperhaps already beginning with "Fa Mulan," because nothing says "war in Inner Mongolia" like the Cantonese version of Hua Mulan's surname, and the film's single most iconic moment is baffling-unto-offensive to a Chinese audience in how blatantly it flies in the face of Chinese culture and history.  Moreover, it was the first Disney cartoon made with its Renaissance in full swing that didn't really seem to want to be a musical anymorethe finished product manages but four songs from composer Matthew Wilder and lyricist David Zippel, boasting a couple of valiant isolated efforts, but nothing satisfyingly cohesiveand, sadly, by Disney's next animated feature the abandonment of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's revolution was essentially complete.  And, while this was a case of creative judgment being reasonably applied to one specific projectthough I suspect more as the result of nerves about the subject matter than anything you'd like to deem progressiveit prefigures the largely asexual, aromantic Disney fare of the future, which so many people have spent so much time pretending they wanted, and has been a rather mixed bag, probably most useful just for providing cover for how terrified they are of making a gay princess.  As for that title, Mulan was the last of the Renaissance "Disney Princesses," and the last to be dubbed such for eleven years, despite the fact that she is neither royalty nor marries into it.  There are, unfortunately, no "Disney Generals," even if I could pitch Disney's Hannibal with five minutes' prep.  He's got an animal sidekick already and no one could even complain, because it's true.

So, yes, a lot of that is extrinsic to the movie itself, and except for the music, none of it is of paramount importance.  The actual problems are more concrete.  Following the Renaissance trend, it has anachronistic Disney sidekick comic relief somewhere between "okay" and "film-wrecking"; but above all, it has a staggeringly dysfunctional third act.  Even more foundationally, it commits two serious sins of ambition, which is the sort of sin you'd prefer if a movie must commit sins at all, but Mulan is attempting to tell a story about two things, one of which you couldn't expect animation in 1998 to be good at, and one of which animation in any era was almost predestined to be reckless about: it is, firstly, a tale of large-scale warfare, involving at a minimum thousands of moving human bodies; secondly, that warfare is undertaken by a chick dressed as a dude, who has to be a convincing-enough dude to avoid being immediately executed.  The problems with the first thing, given what animation is, are self-explanatory, so it's surprising that that's the one where Mulan's willingness to cleverly cheat its way out of problems (like Mulan herself!) works out the best.

I realize that the second thing sounds insane, because animation has a long tradition of seamlessly-presented cross-dressing, but that's just it: what works for Bugs Bunny does not necessarily work for the war drama.  (Though it works better than the live-action Chinese Mulan movies I've seen, which go for the bold gambit of "literally less than no effort," that is, negative effort, because Hua Mulan still wears makeup contemporaneous to the era in which her movie's been shot, more distractingly in Chen Yunshang's turn in the role in 1939's Mulan Joins the Army, whereas at least they realized some of the way through shooting 2009's Mulan: Rise of a Warrior how ridiculous Zhao Wei looked, though not in time to retake the scenes that her lipstick and eyeliner ruin.)

To back things up, Disney's Mulan started out in the mid-90s, with Walt Disney Feature Animation casting around for something Asian to do.  Partly this was out of a wish for variety; partly it was out of unmet hopes that they could repeat the surprise Chinese-market success of The Lion King. Likewise, they also had a whole second studio lying around in Orlando, full of talented people, which was perhaps not being used to its full potential as a helpmeet for Burbank and zoo exhibit for children.  It was through Robert D. San Souci, an author specializing in translating legendary material for kids, that "The Ballad of Mulan" came to the attention of the Disney executive most responsible for Mulan's genesis, Thomas Schumacher; when responsibility for it devolved to producer Pam Coats, she found it easy to see the appeal of Mulan for a brand sort of pitched at girls, but also a ready target of criticism about how their heroines reproduced patriarchy.

"The Ballad of Mulan" is of course itself a product of patriarchynot to belabor something obvious, but it's why its heroine has to dress like a man, and its chiefest theme is filial pietybut this could be spun towards more current feminist notions, and I probably don't need to tell you it's actually gangbusters at it, even rather more complicated than girlpower material can sometimes be, not merely "you too could be an awesome soldier, little girl," though this would still be un-Disney and valuable, but instead "you too might have to be an awesome soldier, even if your feelings on the matter are conflicted, and it'll actually suck," which is superior as a human story.  Though that brings up what society did produce Hua Mulan, which is a question sidestepped entirely by Disney.  Chinese adaptations prefer to sidestep this tooone of the more famous ones moves her up to the Tang Dynasty; the surname, "Hua," is a 16th century invention (her surname might rightfully be "Mulan")but the pseudo-historical Hua Mulan is only very tentatively "Chinese," being the daughter of a military family in the early 5th century Northern Wei.  And so, likelier than not, she was a woman of the Xianbei, a proto-Mongolic group who'd entered a power vacuum in northern China in the late 4th century, became a Sinicized ruling caste, and then, inevitably, had their own conflicts with further steppe nomads, notably Hua Mulan's particular enemies, the Rouran.  Thus one interesting feature of "The Ballad of Mulan" as a historical object (which almost certainly takes place over A.D. 429-439, just two generations after the establishment of the Northern Wei) is the differing and changing gender roles it points to within Xianbei society, with numerous Sinicizing steppe peoples maintaining for some time their ways of raising women to enjoy more "masculine" pursuits, such as had the benefit of freeing up steppe men for war and other terrible things.

Well, Disney's initial impulse was to turn it into (apparently explicitly) Tootsie, which I think we can all be glad didn't happen, even if the frustration of the person who might've been Mulan's most pivotal writer, Chris Sanders, was sufficiently overzealous in his distaste for romantic comedy that Michael Eisner wound up intervening, so we get a hint of romance after all, albeit an unobtrusive one inserted into Sanders' et al's preexisting story of comrades-in-arms (hence that fairly-beloved shot, of Mulan staring dumbfounded and experiencing new tingles at the prodigious musculature of her drill master, was essentially a "reshoot").  Incidentally, those who actually prefer the Mulan story without romance ought to steer clear of any Chinese version, because of course that's what you'd put in a film adaptation of a poem that takes four minutes to read.  As noted, I personally suspect Sanders et al's hesitancy came as much from institutional reluctance to have anything even approximately queer about the leads in a Disney movie; whatever the case, it certainly leaves a lot on the table.  (I have very little use for Mulan Joins the Army, but a Disney animation version of its sequence where Mulan winds up ensconced in multiple layers of gender deceptiona woman disguised as a man disguised as a woman again, prompting some new ways of thinking for its male leadcould've been great.  And while I cannot speak to his heart, I'd like to think that BD Wong particularly could've had fun with such material; the lines that I assume are months-later recordings indicate that he would've.)

Anyway, the story that got whipped up under feature-debuting directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft is faithful enough.  So: in some unspecified and unspecifiable period of Northeast Asian history, the Hunsso as generic a steppe nomad group as possiblecross the Great Wall into China, and the Emperor (Pat Morita) calls for every military family to provide a man for his army of defense.  Thus does this duty fall upon old, limping Fa Zhou (Soon-tek Oh), who has no sons to send, only Mulan (Ming-Na Wen, sung by Lea Salonga), a fuck-up who isn't even very good at being a girl, and who's recently made such a poor impression on the local matchmaker (Miriam Margoyles) it'll be a wonder if she ever even gets a husband.  Mulan is earnest and filial, howeverin the sense that she argues with her father and subverts his willand she refuses to helplessly stand by as Zhou marches himself off to what she's certain will be his death (despite all logic indicating, and later events virtually confirming, that he'd be mustered out as unfit for service).

And so does she take his armor, his sword, and their horse Khan (a nonverbal Frank Welker and the one thing that suggests a Xianbei Mulan, probably by accident), and, under the name "Ping," she presents herself to the army.  Zhou and her mother Li (Freda Foh Shen) recede, knowing that to reveal their daughter now would only result in her execution, for apparently this happens often enough that it's a law.  (It's not, anyway, in "The Ballad," but it's dramatic, so I approve.)  Meanwhile, in the spirit world, Mulan's ancestors (principally George Takei), aghast at this development, summon the great guardian of their family to drag her back.  Unfortunately, through a series of accidents they wind up sending only their demoted and despised third-tier guardian, the tiny lizard-like dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy), who sees in this an opportunity to retake his lost status by making Mulan a war hero.  (There is also a lucky cricket, Welker again.)  Under Mushu's guidance, Mulan attempts to perform masculinity, does terribly, and immediately earns the dislike of her comrades (principally a trio of comic types played by Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, and Jerry Tondo); likewise, she's not good at the martial arts, which earns her the dislike of her commander, general's son Li Shang (Wong, sung by Donny Osmond).  But she gets better, and after some misadventures, her unit is required to make a last-ditch effort after a catastrophe has befallen Shang's father and China's main force.  Here Mulan earns both her glory, as the hero who destroyed the Huns and their khagan, Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), and her shame, for her wounding in this battle has revealed her sex.  She is dismissed, for none who have survived are willing to honor her, but neither are they willing to kill her.  But did she, in fact, destroy Shan Yu?

That gets us right into that third act, which I appreciate from a structural standpoint, in its provision of a darkest hour for Mulan's emotional journey, but which falls apart completely on any closer inspection than appreciating the color and movement in the Imperial City.  Just to begin with, it requires her comrades to distrust anything Mulan tells them, even though "I realize you didn't ask, but I definitely have a penis" and "the Huns are here!" are very distinct types of liethat's on top of its requirement that its sextet of surviving Huns now adopt the entirely new mode of suicidal assassinsand every single contrived beat of it feels palpably like what I'm sure it is, a third act built backwards by any means necessary from the desired denouement.  And that denouement is not worth it, considering that it's just the comic trio dressing in female drag (oho! reversal!), for all of about twenty shots, pretending to be the Emperor's concubines.  (And "ugly concubines" is amusing enough, but it only calls attention to how stupid-silly it is; and anyway, the only funny part of it is one of the trio's silent, blink-and-miss-it reaction to the revelation that another has stuffed his dress with... a banana.  For what it's worth, Mulan: Rise of a Warrior also goes for very much this same kind of narrowed-down, personally-scaled climax, but on a much firmer basis, a secret mission undertaken behind enemy lines, not in an unaccountably-empty imperial palace.)

Then things climax with an overconceived, flop-sweaty villainous demise that Cook and Bancroft will claim was supposed to get away from the "Disney Death," and has technically succeeded, but maintains so much of the feel of a Disney Deaththe prime mover is actually Mushuthat it has no meaningfully different valence, plus the effortfulness of it means it actually takes forever to shake out (and on the way we get a fucking Batman reference).  Honestly, I'd think that "demurely-framed impalement" was at least a possibility after the massacre of the Huns.  And as long as we're discussing our villain, a mere aside feels appropriate for Shan Yu, who's nothing besides the most menacing voice Ferrer can produce.  It is menacing, but in ways that I think might be the aspect of the movie that's decayed the most in my adulthood: I used to think Shan Yu was totes rad; these days Ferrer's performance sounds more like a put-on, and the villain himselfthough a competent threatnow poses for me the question "okay, now what?", the answer being only blank, plot-convenient malevolence.  (Whereas we could interrogate how responsible an idea it is to present the Huns as gray-skinned, yellow-eyed, claw-fingered vampire demons, which fits the historical Chinese attitude towards their frequent conquerorsthe Mongolic endonym "Rouran" is perilously close to the Chinese phrase "wriggling worms" and guess how well they resisted the temptation to use that easy slurand I'm therefore of two minds about it, but I think somebody could, without dishonesty, make a case for Mulan as Disney's actual most-racist movie.)

Before that third act, Mulan is greatgreat with caveats, but greatso that even its less-effective elements would be nothing to fret about too much, if fretting weren't my hobby.  I will at least go so far as to claim that Mushu is better than the characters to whom he's most-often compared, The Hunchback of Notre Dame's gargoyleshell, I'll stake that he's better than much of Disney's post-Aladdin comic reliefbut as a statue that comes to life, the Hunchback comparison is hardest to avoid.  The only time I really hate him is when he brushes his teeth with toothpaste, the film's most upsetting anachronism joke, and that moment has nothing to do with Murphy, usually cited as the reason he's terrible.  I find that making Mushu an active participant in the story, even with his own deal, helps.  I don't know if he's affirmatively goodI'm an enjoyer of Murphy, but "Axel Foley comes to ancient China in a cast of mostly Asian-Americans who are mostly attempting Mythic Time performances" is jarring, and it doesn't have the rationale that Genie didbut you can still see a good version of Mushu from here, even with Murphy.  (The comic trio of soldiers aren't prize specimens of hilarity themselves.)

I've suggested the music isn't effective, but that goes a little too far in damning Wilder and Zippel's songs, since even if "half are good" only gets us to two commendable songs in a whole 87-minute Disney musical, that's not nothing.  Still, Mulan's self-reflective number, er, "Reflection" is sufficiently unmemorable that my pre-watch tally of the songs in Mulan was in fact only three; "A Girl Worth Fighting For," on the other hand, a cheerful marching song for the soldiery, earns more ire from me than it probably strictly deserves, because it's the last song of the Disney Renaissance's last musical, and has very little integrated purpose to it.  In fact, it exists mainly for two reasons, and in descending order of importance, those are to ironically jut right up against the image of a devastated, burning village, and to allow for its "rice paper" animation sequence where abstracted figurework plays out, illustrating the titular fantasies of Mulan's peers.  (And I'll offer that Mulan is slightly prouder of this special animation than it ought to be.)  It's not bad, though, and it does some semi-sophisticated character work by simultaneously humanizing the soldiers while still deploring their sexism (independent and strong-willed Fa Mulan would not, by their lights, be a girl worth fighting for); nonetheless, it suffers from jokey asides and recapitulating musical ideas that have already been done much better here, and I could further express annoyance that a song that could've done something on behalf of Mulan and Shang doesn't.  It's also the moment where Mulan's troop of a couple hundred soldiers drops to fewer than twenty for no reason except to keep it manageable to animate.  Moving up to the ones of real merit, then, we have "Honor To Us All," a B-minus "Belle"-style scene-and-character-establishing number for Mulan, describing the impossible standards of femininity Mulan must meet, set to the most oriental and/or orientalist music Wilder's going to be getting up to for any extended period.  It's got some questionable lyrics like Mulan praying to her ancestors to "help me to not make a fool of me" (clearly, they needed to intervene earlier), but it's exceedingly efficient, and it has some pretty singing in its interwoven parts.  Plus it offers some colorful animation, including the interesting image of Mulan and other potential brides already moving inwhat amounts tomilitary precision.  (Though, equally interestingly, Mulan is bad at this.)

And "Honor" is nothing compared to Mulan's one excellent song, "I'll Make a Man Out of You," involving the obvious but no-less-enjoyable-for-that-fact lyrical play inherent to the titleit's where the late-game reintroduction of romance really does something useful, since Shang is absolutely insistent on "making a man" of the woman he'll eventually, sometime after the credits, fuckand I suppose he does, at that.  It manages a lot of light parody of masculinity, which is significantly more likeable than the previous broad cartoonish parody of masculinity (or the previous broad cartoonish parody of femininity), by way of describing proper manhood as so implausibly cool; likewise, it's just a banger song (Osmond seems like an unintuitive choice for Shang on a couple levels, but it's hard to argue with results).  It prompts one of the finest training montages in cinema, too, enough to wonder if it's an apology from Zippel for writing such a lousy training montage song for Hercules.  (The abject humiliation on stumbling Mulan's face when Shang contemptuously picks up her pack is one of the film's higher-impact emotional beats, even.)  It is, whatever else, the final top-tier Disney song for many years, probably till "Let It Go" a decade and a half hence.*  Yet, curiously, the signature musical moment of Mulan might not be a musical number, but the cue from the venerable Jerry Goldsmith's score called "Mulan's Decision": Goldsmith's score here is always at least good, but this is the one moment that feels like Goldsmith in his prime, Goldsmith the weird and the brave, with the imagination to perceive that a dark twist on driving 80s synthesizer music indeed spoke to the fateful impulse of a 5th century semi-Chinese woman, thereby becoming the biggest reason the film's most iconic scene is its most iconic scene.

That's where Mulan takes it upon herself to hack her long hair off with a sword, to be a man in a society where... men don't cut their hair, tantamount to a sacrament.  Regardless, it's an awesome sequence, between the raging storm, the raging score, and the willingness to tell it silently and principally by way of editing, and it even gains perverse power from the idea of Mulan effectively disgracing her family in order to fulfill what she perceives as her duty to them; it's a cathartic release for the tension generated by what might be Mulan's best single shot, poor Mulan curled up in a ball in the rain in the lap of one of her family's stone guardians.  And here's the thing about Mulan: Mulan is excellent, and in spite of her character necessarily running on a fairly straight rail, as far as Disney's "princesses" go, she's the best-characterized since Ariel herself.  I love how ordinarily inept Mulan is shown to be to start, and at many moments throughout, so that her legend always feels earned, hard-won, and entirely self-made, in ways Disney almost never manages, all while still planting the seeds of her greatnessher tendency towards lateral thinkingin her very introduction, where she's invented a method for "automating" the feeding of chickens that's, actually, worse than useless.  Yet it illuminates the mindset that will prove the difference between China's victory and defeat, for it's only Mulan who figures out how to master Shang's phallus vis-a-vis his ridiculous upper body strength test, and it's only Mulan who could defeat ten thousand Hunnic cavalry with twenty Chinese infantry.**  So it's correct that Mulan's animation would be supervised by Mark Henn, whose top-line resume was uniformly Disney's most thoughtfulmore to the point, most thoughtful-lookingwomen, Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine, the latter two coming off that way far more because of how Henn supervised them than because of their actual stories.

It's a shame that I so strongly dislike how Henn supervised Mulan, and as "watching Mulan because I like Mulan" and "watching Mulan for a critical retrospective" are distinct things, this is undoubtedly what was most damaging on this rewatch, because attending to the detail of it, I just about hate it.  Don't let me imply it's subtle, though.  It's not:

Don't let me imply, either, that it's not technically masterful (Henn's, anyway, not a 90s Disney poster artist's).  But the strategy Henn has devised for Mulan and "Ping" (and I'm almost quoting him verbatim) is to just straight-up make them separate characters, so that Mulan's cross-dressing also comes with new lines describing her, the perfectly-curved ovoids on the girl and a sharp-jawed set of angles on the boy.  Occasionally, she will even shapeshift inside a single shot, so as to rip you out of the film if you're paying too close attention to it.  Disney animation should reward you more for paying attention.  I can't agree with this level of untethered cartooning for this character, without heed of the basic fact that "masculinity" and especially "femininity" are abstracted and caricatured, and arguably overcaricatured, in Disney-style animation already.  Even beyond the general idea, the masculinization is frequently relaxed and reasserted, for reasons that I'm sure made sense to Henn in the momentthere's a question of subjectivity I don't think Henn often asked, namely "whose?"and it's not unlike watching a character going constantly and perplexingly off-model.  (The major continuity is that Mulan does have something of a pinhead, only more obviously with Ping's top-knot.)  And for all that, the shifts in body language can be superb; Fa Zhou, also supervised by Henn, is uniformly lovely work.

Mulan is lovely work overall, though I think it could be accused, in some respects, of being an aesthetically relaxed production from the B-studio.  There's certainly intentionality to it, with the film's watchword being "ancient Chinese watercolors," and thus a sparseness of detail and calm discipline in the color style that aren't absolutely features of Chinese painting, but are common enough, that can frequently manifest into some beautifully hazy exterior backdrops (on the minus side, it also sometimes consigns the film's comparatively few interiors to a beige-gray void; more in a neutral vein, there's a clamping down on fooling around too much with CAPS-powered layouts; back in a positive vein, CAPS allows for some tremendous control of animation color, so that, e.g., Khan's black-fading-into-white coat is a minor marvel).  The character designs come from much the same mentality as the backdrops, though it might be telling, after I complained about her, that my favorite is Mulan, my second favorite is Zhou, and my third favorite is that horse.  (I like Shang, though his cheese-wedge nose is not meant to be seen from all the angles we see it from.)  They do have consistency, which is a little astonishing considering that Disney cartooning seeps in considerably for Mulan's comrades (and Disney cartooning by way of horror cinema seeps in for the Huns), and inasmuch as it can resemble a Chinese scroll painting put into motion, I am pleased to call it a success, and I'll admit to being continually gratified by the Late Disney Renaissance's fearlessness about making wild stylistic leaps.

Where it makes itself plain as nothing like a "relaxed" effort, however, is in the parts that argue mightily for the full-on Greatness I would like to ascribe to it: by this, I mean "fuck, is this the best effects animation of the 1990s?"  It's glorious how much less uncanny the Imperial City's computer-generated crowds look than the similar software's output in Hunchback, and with far bigger spaces to fill; the third act might blow, but the moment when all China bows to Mulan still gets me choked up, and it's a feat that would've been more-or-less impossible much earlier in the decade.

The great effects animation here isn't always this showy: the particular aesthetic of hefty, well-defined outlines around the explosions, smoke, etc. is extremely good at evoking "East Asian art style" on its behalf, so it's not even just the technology I'm here to praise.  But, of course, what I'm really talking about is the centerpiece sequence, and man, is that some technology or whatthe battle in the snow where the film's most successful cheat happens, a squad of five hand-drawn characters and a few fungible hand-drawn extras facing down a Hunnic CGI army, conjured in a program called Attila in an apparent bid to outdo The Lion King's stampede and I daresay it might.  It's a phenomenal action scene, crafted with a tangible sense of bleak doom, even before Mulan saves the day with that avalanche that threatens them all alike.  Animator Garrett Wren spent years on it, and the weight and terror of this tidal wave of stark white is at least the best snow animation ever, if not all fluids or flowing powders, generally.  But you know what blows my mind here?  The battle is in the snow, and we are never asked to forget it: they're so incredibly fastidious about making sure every character animation footfall has a consequence that this, by itself, makes me want to roll my estimation of Mulan back to "unambiguously great."

I won't be, for all the above-listed reasonsrisible climax, protean jawlines, musical reluctancebut I do want to, because Mulan is special anyway, in how it goes beyond Disney's comfort zone and, for the most part, meets its challenges well.  And so the proverbial grain of rice that tips the scale isn't any of the above complaints: it's that at the end of that magnificent battle sequence, not only has no speaking character died, in this war film, but as Mulan is almost swept off into a bottomless crevasse, they make absolutely sure to pull up that 2000-pound horse, too, evidently gripped within Mulan's Chun-li-like thighs.  Disney.

Score: 7/10

*Some might say "Friends On the Other Side," "Mother Knows Best," or "I See the Light," but I don't believe I would.
**Yes, by traveling through time to the 13th century and bringing back rocketry to the 5th.  You be quiet.


  1. Listen, the Chinese Army had enough trouble with an army
    of Huns - imagine what would have happened if the Mongol Hordes found out that they’d abandoned a Khan to a plummeting death! (-;

    (Hey, if China can have rockets in the 5th century it’s perfectly reasonable to worry about that other Khan arriving a bit ahead of schedule).

    On a less facetious note, I’d like to put in a kind word for ‘The Huns Attack’ from Mr Jerry Goldsmith - it always leaves ME with the burning desire to steal a horse, see my enemies driven before me and hear the lamentations of their women, so it probably makes plain to quite a few other members of the audience EXACTLY what inspires men to follow Shan Yu and what drives the villain himself.


    In fact one would argue that your remarks about Shan Yu’s decision to sack the Imperial Palace with a handful of men and murder The Emperor with his own two hands are hardly out of keeping with his previously-displayed tendency to (A) Go for the jugular and
    (B) Defy all odds in pursuit of his own Glory.

    Remember that this is a man who invaded China - friggin’ CHINA - because he counted the Great Wall was a direct challenge, preferred to engage the cream of the Imperial Army rather than circumvent them and was only prevented from destroying the runt of the Chinese forces by a Natural Disaster (I’m feeling waggish, so let’s assume that Natural Disaster was Fa Mulan).

    Imagine how this deeply vainglorious brute is going to feel after seeing his army reduced to a mere warband - that’s not a challenge, that’s an INSULT, and one that has to be wiped away with blood (Especially since there’s nothing left for him on the Steppes after such a humiliation: who would willingly follow a warlord who lost his army without striking a blow?).

    As for his men, for them it’s even simpler: if the Chinese couldn’t kill them with an AVALANCHE what have these Huns left to fear but shame?

    1. I mean, he is the least of the third act problems, but characterizing Shan Yu as essentially an embodiment of steppe conquest means that he needs that tidal wave of horsemen to scan. But I can accept that there's a fair fraction of Mulan's audience for whom Shan Yu rules (because I used to be part of that fraction!).

      I really feel like 1998's Mulan would do better with the ending of 2009's Mulan attached to it. (The khagan in that film has a bit more to grab onto due to the film's treatment of the Rouran as some kind of polity composed of individuals, even though he's just as much matinee PURE EEEEVIL fun.)

      It occurred to me a moment ago that I watched this movie twice in the past five days (once clean, once with commentary) and many times over the years, and don't actually remember what happened to Shan Yu's dudes, whom I assume must have been dispatched by Mulan's dudes, but I can't place the imagery.

    2. Technically-speaking, one could argue that Shan Yu is also an embodiment (and Dark Mirror) of the ideal described in ‘Be a Man’ - the character is nothing if not the QUINTESSENCE of Testosterone Poisoning, in his own understated way.

      Heck, he’s practically Evil Conan!