03 December 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: TRANQUIL AS A FOREST, BUT ON FIRE WITHIN

The Florida arm of Walt Disney Feature Animation opened in 1988, to provide additional support for the massive production of The Little Mermaid. But its true purpose was as a tourist attraction (it certainly didn't make things more efficient to split the work load between the two coasts!), one of the centerpieces of the brand-spanking-new Disney-MGM Studios theme park that became the third branch of the Walt Disney World resort on May 1, 1989. Giving guests an unprecedented level of access into the work done in the creation of an animated film, the studio was the centerpiece of a walking tour called "The Magic of Disney Animation": after a cutesy, fun, and not tremendously informative short film starring Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams, the tour opened into a large two-story room, with the guests walking in a glass-walled dais that overlooked the actual desks where the animators were doing their actual drawings. You could stand there basically as long as you liked, just watching as they drew (the tech stuff all happened in another room), something that a certain future blogger, in his youth, managed to stretch out for 30 minutes or longer, thanks to overly indulgent parents.

As far as film production goes, the Florida studio was often not much more than a place where extra work got done when the big boys at California didn't have enough time; that, and the scattered Roger Rabbit shorts. Under the general guidance of supervising animator Mark Henn, who I like to imagine ruled that small company with the iron fist of a totalitarian godking (except that I've met Mark Henn, a tremendously nice man who probably couldn't exercise totalitarian control over a plate of french fries), the Florida group turned out something like half of the animation for Belle in Beauty and the Beast, most or perhaps all of Jasmine in Aladdin, and the younger iteration of Simba from The Lion King.

After the last of these, the decision was made that the Florida animators deserved a shot to prove themselves as more than just second-stringers, and thus it was announced that the next feature put into production would be the first produced entirely at the Florida studio (except for some computer-driven effects shots, which were still made in California, where the all the technology was located). And for this reason if none other, the 1998 release Mulan would occupy a privileged place in the history of Disney animation. But it's a pretty special film for another reason: it was the first, and to date only, Disney animated feature based on wholly non-Western source material (sure, Aladdin, but it's been famous in the West since the 1700s, and it might have been composed by a Frenchman), taken from a classic Chinese folk legend about a young woman, Hua Mulan (or Fa Mulan, in Cantonese and the movie), who disguises herself as a man to take her father's place in the army, where she becomes a great war hero. Heroine? Hero. She does good in the wars.

My inclination is to first compare Mulan to Disney's adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, something that cannot really be done on any aesthetic or dramatic grounds, but I do anyways because they have, to my eyes, the same crippling flaw. In both cases, a film of stunning visual beauty, married to a story of real emotional heft, peopled by compelling characters, all of it so good that you can almost imagine calling it one of the great post-Walt Disney masterpieces from the studio - except for the comedy. In Hunchback, those three poppy, sarcastic, horribly modern gargoyles are a weird intrusion of toy-ready kid appeal in a movie that is otherwise wildly inappropriate for any child, and they're much more weird than they are debilitating, if for no other reason than how relatively infrequently they show their ugly faces. But in Mulan, oh dear, nothing like that at all. In Mulan, the comic side character is a sassy little red dragon named Mushu, played by Eddie Murphy in full "I'm Eddie Murphy and it's the late 1990s" mode. If there's one thing that I believe we can all be in full agreement in regards to Mr. Murphy, it's that his attempts to make family-friendly movies, particularly in the years since Mulan, are among the most ungodly dismal things in modern American cinema; and while his performance of Mushu is unalloyed gold next to something like the evil he does in Doctor Dolittle or Daddy Day Care, I do not hestitate for a moment in finding his quips and presumable ad-libs and hyper-modern pseudo-hip persona to be unendingly dreary; having reflected upon the matter for some while, I think it fair and accurate to call Mushu the worst comic sidekick in all the history of Disney feature animation. This is a taste issue; for when I mentioned to my mother, the same kindly woman who waited patiently as I pressed my nose against the glass and gawked as animation was made before my eyes, that I was watching Mulan, she very excitedly asked if that was the one with Eddie Murphy. She also regularly watches and enjoys Two and a Half Men.

Where Mushu is unlike the gargoyles, is that he cannot possibly be stripped out of the movie. Far too much of the plot, at its most basic level, is driven by his actions and personality, and while it's easy to imagine a Mulan with the same general sequence of events that lacked any fantasy element at all, the Mulan we have is deeply entangled with the wretched little dragon. His presence in an otherwise subtle and sometimes deeply felt story of identity, family, and self-worth is destructive and needless, except that the need is the sale of plush toys, t-shirts, and Happy Meals. I can think of no grimmer example of the "Disneyfication" principle at work - the tendency to strip away whatever is meaningful, difficult, and adult and replace it with cute, marketable simplicity - than weighing down a story already shot through with a lightness and comic that makes it altogether family-friendly, with this monstrous, gimmicky character.

Ah, but enough about Mushu! He depresses me, and I'd rather talk about what works in Mulan, or barring that, what makes Mulan so fascinating; for it is one of the most fascinating of Disney films. I frankly don't know what I'd make of a Disney project without at least some kind of problematic representation: over the years, we've seen queasy stereotypes and mis-guided attempts at politically correct fixes applying to African-Americans, Italians, Native Americans, and (depending on your interpretation of particular characters), homosexuals, and of course there's a rich tradition stretching all the way from 1937 to the present of Disney committing some of the most unfortunate crimes against feminism in pop culture. Mulan, though, is something especially difficult to grapple with: it is a self-conscious attempt to present Chinese culture with respect in an American film that is ultimately aimed at children, it is a girl-power movie made by a company that apparently without irony thinks that the Disney Princesses brand is a good way to encourage little girls to think better about themselves, and it is a film all about the construction of gender roles made by a studio whose modus operandi in regards to the physical construction of men and women has generally been to ignore the fact that clothing is a removable part of the human body.

To begin with the last of these: sexuality is a bigger deal in Mulan than in all of the previous Disney films put together - not sexuality as a matter of identity or some such thing (God! a non-hetero-normative Disney film would be a hard thing to imagine), but as a matter of the fact that sex is something that exists in human beings. It's one thing when the words "cross-dresser" and "drag show" are spoken, it stands out as unusual, but ultimately more a matter of these latter-day features' tendency towards anachronistic humor than anything which particularly validates the rich subculture of drag.

Later on, there are a few scenes that really do stand out as inexplicably and entirely anti-Disney, at least insofar as we can safely define "the ignorance of procreative organs" as quintessentially Disney, which I think we can. The first comes when Mulan has arrived at the army training camp, now hidden under the name Ping - the commander of the new recruits, Captain Li Shang, pulls off his shirt as he addresses the men, revealing a tremendously cut physique, and Mulan absolutely and unashamedly gawks at him. That's not something nice Disney girls do: their boyfriends are resolutely unsexy cardboard boys who have pretty eyes. Of course, there's a tradition stretching at least as far back as The Three Caballeros in the feature animation canon (it goes further back into the 1930s short films) for Disney males to boggle cartoonishly at some sexy, curvy lady, why, even Hunchback and Hercules have. But never and I do mean never in any feature has a female Disney character looked at a male Disney character and experienced what is unmistakably sexual arousal; the girl animals in Bambi are just about the only possible exceptions to that rule, and they're rather a point for discussion than a definite counter-example (Peg in Lady and the Tramp is almost another, but she never actually interacts with the Tramp). Even Meg in Hercules, a woman who self-evidently has a sexual history and refers to Hercules's "rippling biceps", still projects a "I'd like him to be my boyfriend" vibe rather than a "I'd like to sleep with him" vibe. Giving the whole segment one last push into uncharted strange territory is when Yao, one of the three comic soldiers who we get to know best out of the camp, makes a snide comment about Shang's show-off need to remove his shirt. Yao is played by Harvey Fierstein, who is, of course, Jewish. There's bound to be some other reason why having him provide the comic button for a scene in which a woman pretending to be a man is struck dumb by a gorgeous male physique would be of meta-textual import, as well.

Not so very long after that, comes a scene in which Mulan desperately needs a bath, and so she sneaks off to a remote pool. Unfortunately, the three comic soldiers follow shortly, and thus Mulan is caught in a farcical little scene where she has to get out of the water quickly, without revealing anything below her neck. Obviously, everyone over the age of three understands this joke, so it's not like Disney has found a new maturity; but when Mushu makes a crack about "a couple of things I'm sure they're going to notice", it seems so massively weird that it's a Disney movie that just unambiguously referenced breasts. Oh, there have been lots of bosom jokes, and thinks getting wedged in cleavage jokes (even things getting wedged in cross-dressers cleavage jokes, in Robin Hood) but this is of a whole different tenor, particularly when Yao stands on a rock proclaims himself "King of the Rock" standing arms akimbo and legs spread so that, when the film cuts to a shot from behind his calves of the other two men and Mulan staring up at him, you just spontaneously have to think: "He has a penis. And they're staring at it, because it's really hard not to stare at a naked man's penis, unless you are specifically and conspicuously not staring at it. Mulan has almost certainly not seen a penis before. Her expression tells me that it is larger than she anticipated. Also, I, the viewer, am meant to understand all of these shades of meaning for the joke to work." Does any other Disney male have a penis? Not most of them - none of the Princes Charming, certainly. Truly we are in new territory.

I'm probably making this out to be a bigger deal than it should be: the film is still in squeaky-clean G-rated territory (Hunchback's representation of sexuality is far more adult-oriented than this). But after 35 animated films in a row, you start to get comfortable with the idea that Disney characters are all Barbie dolls down there - to have that challenged in such a visceral way as Mulan's whole concept really demands is tremendously exciting.

Sexual biology in the film rather naturally leads us to gender in the film, and what to me is the great question of Mulan: is this is a feminist statement, or not? I've seen a lot of energy spent debating that question, which seems to generally settle on "probably not", given that, although Mulan proves herself an abler thinker and fighter than any of the men in the movie, she is primarily motivated by duty to her father and the patriarchal system he represents; also Shang's washboard abs. Making things that much more absurd to untangle, though is that this is not a film set in 20th Century America, but in an ill-defined period in China, in a culture where "duty to the father" doesn't mean the same things that it does elsewhere. I'm not certain that the film actually presents Chinese culture in an appropriate manner, because it seems awfully similar to most other American media treatments of that country; in fact, it seems especially like the Klingon culture scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a bunch of white men's attempt to metaphorically represent Chinese codes of duty and honor.

The issues of representation quickly hit a point where I, a white American male, feel grossly ill-equipped to discuss them, but I'm pretty sure the film is being reductive towards somebody: I just can't quite figure out if it's women or the Chinese people. We're talking about more than a billion individuals, either way. At the very least, the intrusion of American pop-culture elements into a Chinese folktale is something that should be viewed with skepticism and perhaps a trace of alarm.

Whatever the case may be, the film works as a character-driven narrative. I don't know if she's emblematic of feminine empowerment or subjugation, but I know that I really like Mulan. Voiced by the Macau-born Ming-Na, sung by the Filipino Lea Salonga, and animated by Mark Henn, in one of his finest hours, she's sympathetic and strong - dramatically strong, I mean, in that she is a prime mover and takes an active role in the development of the plot around her, which is not true of most of the other characters in the Disney Princess line (though what the hell Mulan is doing in the Princess campaign is a mystery to me: she's not royalty or even nobility, and her narrative contains none of the Princess tropes). Her personality is one of the best-defined of all the protagonists in the Disney Renaissance: Belle and maybe Quasimodo are equal to her, but she's far more interesting than Ariel, Aladdin, Jasmine, Simba, or Pocahontas.

One of my favorite little tricks in contemporary Disney animation is part of her character design: Henn changed the details of her eye shape and the way her face moves when she was "Ping" as compared to when she was out of disguise - something you can only do in animation, especially the way that Henn practices it, which is that sometimes within one shot we see both versions of the character. It's not such a subtle thing that you don't notice it, but it still works extremely well and helps to explain, much better than Ming-Na's unconvincing boy voice, how she could get away with the subterfuge for as long as she manages. Above and beyond this detail, I think that Mulan is a really great example of what Henn did about as well as anybody else in his generation: keeping his movements small, understated; he may have been, all in all, the subtlest of all the A-list animators of the Renaissance, although the differences between animators' styles were not as clear in the 1990s as they were during the reign of the Nine Old Men.

At any rate, Mulan is buoyed up by this one very dramatically effective heroine, and the plot surrounding her is quite thrilling and entertaining - the first straight-up war story in a Disney cartoon, centering around the Chinese army's attempts to stave off an invasion of Huns, led by Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), who I think might well have been one of the great memorable Disney villains of the 1990s if he had more screentime and a less over-the-top death: he's pretty well-animated, led by first-time supervisor Pres Antonio Romanillos (most of them were first-timers on this movie), and the colorists did a fantastic job of giving him a sickly, corpse-like appearance.

The film's finest achievements are neither narrative nor character-based, though (if only because the narrative and characters are so desperately problematic), but largely in the area of design. If it is not such a huge break from Disney tradition as Hercules, Mulan nevertheless looks much different from what we expect of the studio, based largely upon the influence of traditional Chinese art. It is a much cleaner, simpler film than we're used to, with a considerable softer palette that tends towards greys, pinks, and greens; when there is the use of a strong color like bright red or orange, especially, it is always at a moment of great dramatic intensity. The lines used throughout the film are also exceptionally round and flowing, all the more noticeably since Pocahontas, Hunchback, and especially Hercules had all been trending towards somewhat more angular designs. The only especially angular things in Mulan are the horses, who are quite incredible-looking, by the way.

It is one thing to be influenced by a thing and another to have that influence mean something; and what is chiefly impressive about Mulan is that the appropriation of Chinese iconography in a film that was plainly made by Western animators feels ultimately so natural and successful. Though it is not the studio's most accomplished piece of animation of that period - The Lion King and Hunchback certainly outperform it - it is absolutely lovely to look at, and perhaps the most soothing Disney film to look at from the 1990s: there is a pleasing lack of visual conflict in the lines and coloring.

The music is mostly unexceptional; Hercules lyricist Dave Zippel teams now with composer Matthew Wilder on a handful of songs that mostly fail to stick in the mind, although they're all in their own way tied into the film's representational issues in ways that deserve consideration. The first number, "Honor to Us All", pretty flawlessly points out all the weirdness of the Chinese/feminist problem, by expressing in the baldest terms possible the idea that Imperial China was founded on unusually strong patriarchal principles; "Reflection" is a pretty good piece of ammunition for the anti-feminist readings, since its theme is basically, "Since I am not a proper girl, I am going to make my family sad", with a twist of "Man, they just don't get me" boilerplate. Both of them are fairly disposable: "Honor to Us All" is just a routine "Belle" knock-off, and "Reflection" is the customary "yearning" song done without distinction. The pop version played over the credits was the first-ever single for 17-year-old ex-Mickey Mouse Club star Christina Aguilera, so that's something.

Far better are "I'll Make a Man Out of You" and "A Girl Worth Fighting For", which both address the whole sexual thing, and to a certain degree the latter suffers from being a less musically interesting redo of the former (though it boasts one of the most beautiful sequences of animation in the movie, in which the characters are presented briefly as moving figures from a roughly-done watercolor). The former, though, is a real delight, despite being performed by Donny Osmond (the least Chinese actor in a cast that was at least somewhat skewed towards legitimate Asians); the basic hook of informing a disguised girl that, well, "I'll make a man out of you" is playfully messed-up, and the pounding military drive of the song makes it by far the most earwormy in the movie.

Musically, though, Jerry Goldsmith's score is the only thing really worth getting excited about, unsurprisingly (his genius years were behind him, but he was still one of the better composers in Hollywood for turning out things just a bit to the side of what you'd expect to hear). Freely blending American and Chinese influences, he even managed in one particularly dramatic moment to string together a bit of synthesiser music that sounds like it came straight from a 1980s action movie, and have it sound fairly appropriate and stirring, rather than cheesy and stupid.

Mulan is another movie that I ended up liking a great deal more on review than when I last saw it, a good eight years ago. Yes, that peculiar tug between female empowerment and sexism counts against it, but at the time time the film is so blithely progressive about the gender-identity issues being thrown around that I'm willing to call it a draw. The only real flaw is that damned awful comic relief, and boy what a flaw it is: the whole movie deflates every time he opens his mouth to say something else painfully unamusing. But as we draw near to the close of the Disney Renaissance, I think it well to be generous: for the film still has appealing characters, a good story, and it is gorgeous. Bad comedy or not, it is a good Disney movie, and that will soon become a more precious commodity than I care to think about.

9 comments:

Meg said...

Oh, Mushu. I hated him even as a nine year old girl. of course, then I didn't know why, just that there was something about him that didn't fit, and he just wasn't funny. I had kind of erased him from my memory until I watched the movie a few weeks ago and wished I could go back to not remembering.

As for the feminist aspects of the film, I never found it to be particularly anti-feminist, as I saw the... less than progressive parts a reflection of (what I'm sure is a simplified portrayal) Chinese culture of the time period. I find it hard to fault Mulan for wanting to run off to save her father. I believe you said something to the effect of, "If Belle's anti-feminist for it's really just falling in love with a man that's anti-feminist," and I saw Mulan the same way. Mulan's love for her father isn't necessarily a reenforcement of patriarchy. Plus, the movie doesn't end with a wedding, but with Shang staying for dinner. I mean, it's not perfect, but when I was nine, Mulan made me think I could do whatever I wanted -- go off to war and save the country if I wanted to. And that's better, in my estimation, than telling young girls, "You, too, can marry a prince!"

Tim said...

Oh gawd, you were nine? I'm so old...

Your reading is certainly the reading I'm inclined to, but when I hear a feminist author declare that an artwork is anti-feminist, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. Hence my dithering.

MrRoivas said...

Some feminist authors also think that all sex between males and females is coercive, and therefore rape. I am a feminist male, and I feel no need to give that particular view the benefit of the doubt. To have the movie be completely free of anti-feminist messages would make it inauthentic as a portrayal of the culture and of the time. IMHO, you have no need to dither on this issue.

As for the review... yeah, for the most part I agree. I liked Mulan as a character, thought that the side characters were used well for the most part. I always enjoy the movie... until the dragon shows up. Then I always start wondering "What the **** is Eddie Murphy doing in ancient China?" Ah well. It still remains one of my favorite Disney movies, despite it all.

Benjamin said...

Harvey Fierstein is gay (in another bit of animation type-casting, he played Homer's assistant Carl in an oooooold episode of the Simpsons, Simpson and Delilah, from Season 2, I believ), which I think qualifies for the meta-textual import you were looking for.

Meg said...

Yes, I was nine. And a half, now that I checked I hadn't turned ten yet. And the fact that Mulan was eleven years ago makes me feel old, geez, where does the time go?

Even if you're not a woman, you're entitled to your opinion on these matters. Like Mr Roivas said, there are some feminists who will argue just about anything is anti-feminist. I mean, I've made some pretty ridiculous feminist arguments in the past for academic purposes.

Also, I thought I'd add that, even though you didn't talk about him that much, Shan Yu was, for me, the most terrifying Disney villain in existence. He still scares me. I think it's the part where the Huns pop up out of the snow.

Tim said...

Benjamin: oh, I know it. I was going for the joke, in the "he's so gay that it's the one thing everybody knows about him, so I'll pretend that I don't know that he's gay" way.

Meg: I dearly wish there was more of Shan Yu in this movie. The scene you reference is outstanding; I also love his casual evilness in the opening.

javi75 said...

Stop complaining you people, you are all so young. You tell me when you reach my age.

Mr. K said...

I feel like my new habit is seeing movies now that you reviewed two years ago and commenting on them.

I saw this while reading a book on White Russian military operations in Mongolia (a total coincidence, brought on by the girlfriend's love of the movie) and I realized that if this movie could be accused of outright racism, it is towards the Mongolian characters, who all look evil and sickly as an ethnic group, and have no redeeming characteristics or nuance other than "evil" and "foreign".

And at the same time, Shan-Yu is an awesome character.

Pan MiluĊ› said...

I'm seen all Disney movie (each one at least few times), I'm work as an animation scriptwriter whith a lot of lot for Disney of classical era like "Dumbo" or "Fantasia"...

...Yet for some odd reason "Mulan" always come to mind as my favorite Disney movie.


I guess a lot of this has to do with nostalgia (I was like 9 when I seen this in cinema) but the story get's to me on a very personal level. I just love every thing about this one. The heroine, the message, the animation style, the songs (I'll make a man out of you) and the comedy. To me it's the funnyest Disney films when it comes down to comedy and I don't mind Mushu (maybe becose I'm from Poland I proably don't get how 80's his lines are... BTW-> They actually got Polish comedy legend Jerzy Sztur to be the voice of Mushu in Polish dubb and he did such fantastic job they also got him to do the donkey in "Shrek").

I can't help it, It's the one Disney film I can watch over and over agian the most but at the same time I see most of the problems people have with this one.


Yours
Maciek Kur/Pan Milus

P.S. My second favorite movie is "Fox and the hound" BTW