02 April 2013

DISNEY SEQUELS: GET CRAZY WITH FROSTING

Many of the sequels produced by DisneyToon Studios - many, many, many, many of them - betray the emotions and themes of their precursor movies from the actual Disney canon. So it is no surprise that Mulan II does this. What makes this particular movie stand out, then, is how much it betrays itself: while most of these movies at least manage to hang together as self-contained objects, Mulan II is so feeble-minded and irritating even as a stand-alone narrative that before too long, I'd pretty much forgotten to keep comparing it to the original 1998 Mulan - the last film from Disney's 1990s renaissance to end up stuck with a DTV sequels, as it happens - as the experience of watching this movie was perfectly enervating all by itself, without having to hunt for reasons to hate the damn thing.

This is not, as it turns out, a consensus opinion: Mulan II is largely regarded as a mostly un-miserable sequel, with fairly strong animation. The former is an issue of taste, of course; I am, though, quite stunned that anybody could look at any given scene of this thing and think to themselves, "yeah, I feel good about the art of 2-D animation when I look at this picture". It is, for the most part, well-drawn, which is not the same thing as animation at all, of course, though many people do not bother making the distinction between the quality of the individual still images and the smoothness and acting involved in transitioning between them. Even spotting that, Mulan II is full of enough frankly ugly character designs and horrifyingly broad expressions on the pre-established characters that even from a purely static level of draftsmanship, it should be obvious that something is wrong here.

This is hardly shocking, but particularly disappointing, given that Mulan was such a vivid-looking picture, one of the most distinctive Disney films of its era, with a very particularly mentality toward character design and color palette that are carried over into the sequel only when they have to be.

Still and all, the visuals are perhaps the least-obnoxious part of a movie that begins, inevitably, by crapping all over the very delicately expressed themes of the original. It's obvious from the last scene of Mulan that the writers of that movie wanted the title character (Ming-Na Wen), having saved China after posing as a man to take her aged father's place in the army, to pair off with newly-promoted General Li Shang (B.D. Wong), though this is happily shunted well off-screen, and the movie is able to end as it has been for its entire run: without caving in to Disney's customary gender norms. It is a movie emphatically not about the girl getting married and behaving like a doormat.

So the sequel opens, of course, with Mulan's long-awaited engagement to Shang, who has known that she is a woman for about a month.

That was baked-in to the ending of the last movie, admittedly. It's fair, if a bit dreary, that the sequel is basically forced to play the "girls get married" card right off the bat. But the filmmakers of Mulan II are still at some level aware that their protagonist Disney's token overtly feminist princess, despite being, in cold fact, not actually a princess (and the plot very quickly corrects for the princess-less Mulan universe), and so it would behoove the sequel to have some kind of self-conscious gender-progressive theme. And so Mulan II sets itself to exploding the pernicious tradition of arranged marriages, by setting up a situation where the Emperor of China (Pat Morita), in order to make a tactically vital treaty, has sent his three daughters, Mei (Lucy Liu), Ting Ting (Sandra Oh), and Su (Lauren Tom), to be married to the princes of the Qui Gong kingdom. Shang and Mulan are to be the leaders of this mission, and Shang selects the previous film's comic relief soldiers Yao (Harvey Fierstein) Ling (Gedde Watanabe) and Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo) as all the guard he needs for this highly sensitive diplomatic mission.

In regrettably straightforward fashion, the three schlubs and the three princesses all fall in love, and soon Mulan and Shang's relationship is being torn by their differing views on love: she believes in following one's heart, and he believes in following one's duty. It is not remotely thrilling to find out who wins, because the deck is so unmistakably and thoroughly stacked, and boy, is it ever a pile of bullshit: not least because the princesses are presented with the choice between their arranged marriage and the common soldiers, but emphatically not with the choice of not marrying anybody. So much for feminism.

The thing is: Mulan wasn't a story about following one's heart, and trying to spin that out as the "lesson" of that film, so that Mulan can act as the voice of liberated wisdom, is psychotic. The entire point of the first movie is to fulfill one's duty to one's ancestors and the empire - Mulan doesn't dress as a man because she wants to fuck with gender norms, it's because she is convinced that her sacrifice and it is made out to be a sacrifice is in the best interest of everybody but her. Anachronistic liberalism is one of my pet peeves, but it's not terribly harmful most of the time, and can sometimes even add some spark and flavor. But this is just ridiculous: the story of true love and personal fulfillment winning out over one's duty and honor-bound oaths is arguably less-suited to Imperial China than to any other place in any other period of human history. Anyway, the princesses could have just married the Qui Gong princes like they were meant to, and then kept the soldiers as their lovers, like members of the court have done for centuries. Though I can see where Disney would have rejected that plot development.

(Meanwhile, it's no surprise that a script this addicted to fortune cookie utterances would fall short on presenting a sane, realistic version of China).

That's not even the really awful part: the really awful part is that Mulan's tiny dragon guardian Mushu (Mark Moseley, a white dude doing an Eddie Murphy impression, which goes over about as well as it sounds) has found out that once Mulan and Shang marry, she'll be part of his family and not her own, which means that he'll be forcibly retired. Not remotely willing to accept that fate, he tags along on the secret mission to devote his energies to breaking the couple apart. As one who thought that Mushu was, by a vast margin, the worst thing in the first Mulan, seeing him come back at all was a disappointment, though not a surprise at all. And the plot that houses him is so unrelievedly nasty and bitter, full of genuine meanness and monstrous selfishness blithely played as slapstick comedy, that I think I would have left the movie hating him even if I hadn't started that way.

Mulan II combines the lowest kind of sitcom farce action, and musical, doing an unbelievably bad job of transitioning between modes throughout: when it gets dark, it does so fast, and shifts back into wacky visual gags so quickly that it might as well never have changed. It's very schizoid as a result, and shallow, and coupled with the intellectual shabbiness of its banal themes, the whole thing feels totally empty and pointless. It also commits the terrible error of lowering the mistakes: the last film centered on the fate of China itself, this one is about... making three princesses happy? Exploring how relationships are hard? The fact that Mulan II doesn't even have a clear-cut central conflict certainly doesn't help obviate the feeling that it's all pretty simplistic and fluffy.

At this point, I'm just going to start complaining, and not even pretend that there are linking passages between my thoughts. Because, golly, did this movie leave me in an irritated mood - it's so mediocre, but in a really present, aggressive way. So, let's hop over to the songs. There are three: least notably a re-written version of "A Girl Worth Fighting For" from the first movie for the three suitors to sing, and it is leadenly amusing, I suppose. "Suck in your gut - a girl worth fighting for!" is at any rate a funny line in context. The three princesses get their own, a certain "Like Other Girls" (voice doubled by Beth Blankenship, Mandy Gonzalez, and Broadway fixture/Disney stalwart Judy Kuhn), and here's where we get into the fun, and by fun I mean "ear-destroying insipidity". The music is by Jeanine Tesori, and the lyrics by Alexa Junge, and if the music is soppy and unmemorable, the lyrics are a fucking nuclear wasteland, in which the princesses sing about how they "wanna be like other girls / Scrape up my knees like other girls can". Like other girls can. Not like other girls do. Strange bit of bet-hedging. Also, princesses want to eat cake. Seriously, they want to eat the almighty shit out of cake, which is stressed two separate times in not that many words.

The first song, also by Tesori and Junge, is even worse: called "Lesson Number One", its Mulan's (Lea Salonga sings) way of teaching the little neighbor girls how to be strong and balanced between physical prowess and mental stability, and it is horrid: the "strength" melody and the "peace" counter-melody are both embarrassing cod-Asian tunelets, and the lyrics actually involve the sound hah like you make when you're miming kung-fu moves, as a part of the meter. That's almost clever; but the closer it gets to clever without actually being clever, the more it is outrageously stupid. And this is pretty outrageously stupid.

This leaves us with only the animation to talk about, which I've already done a little bit, but let's reiterate: it's stiff and jerky, and it frankly wasn't a shock to me to find that the bulk of the work was done at DisneyToon's Japanese branch, which I've consistently found to be the weakest of Disney's TV animation satellites. Also, I mentioned without really clarifying that I disliked the design, and it is, to be honest, mostly a matter of taste, not of objectively horrible characters. Still, I look at the princesses, Mei especially, and I really don't know how I'm supposed to cope:

That's just... kind of horrible. There's a level of stylisation there that could, in and of itself, work; but Mulan was already so stylised in a different way, and Mulan II largely follows in those footsteps; the new characters tend to be, as a class, very round and soft and above all cartoony; but it is the wrong sort of cartoony, devoid of the clean, sharp lines of the original. And sometimes, it's also sort of ugly, unsettling in some way that I'm still not entirely clear about. Mulan's coterie of children, I don't mind admitting, left me feeling very unhappy to be watching them.

They look like vinyl toys, not characters; that might be part of it. They also look like the general idea behind anime character design adapted with an immense lack of skill to the Disney house style, which is so very, very far away from anime that the graft could only hold in an overt experiment. And this is a DisneyToon sequel, the last place you would ever see that kind of experimentation.

I dislike Mulan II more than it deserves. I'll own up to that; it is no more pointedly bad than any of the couple dozen DTV sequels made at the same level of carelessness. But for some reason, everything about it puts me in a bad mood: the shitty animation, the asinine, tedious songs, and the hellaciously flat HEY GIRL POWER EVERYBODY! AND PRINCESSES! GIRL POWER AND PRINCESS AND STEAMING MOUNDS OF ANACHRONISM! storyline most of all. The weird thing is, I don't even have that much love for Mulan, which I does a great many interesting and even beautiful things, without tying it all together in a cohesive whole. But at least it's not as shrill as its sequel, the joyless CBS sitcom version of a story that was mostly noteworthy for how far it kept away from the kind of reductive sociology that this sequel so enthusiastically endorses.

9 comments:

DerFuhrer said...

I liked Mulan a bit more than you do, discounting Mushu, so I probably will never ever watch Mulan II.

With that said, among the small sample size of people I know to have watched Mulan II, all of them loved Mulan and absolutely none of them found its sequel even tolerable. All of them happened to be Asian, so I'm not sure what that means for the movie in general.

Monica Reida said...

I think at about 10 minutes into the movie I found myself hoping the horse would trample Mushu. He's easily the weakest part of Mulan, so making him even bigger her was a really big mistake.

Regular GeoX said...

I've never understood the hatred for Mushu. I didn't see the movie 'til after reading the review here, so I was all set to cringe, but I didn't. Maybe it's just that I'm not sufficiently familiar with the Eddie Murphy oeuvre that I automatically picture him whenever the character speaks, but I liked him and found him not even a tiny bit irritating. So, there. Counterpoint.

Colin said...

Regular GeoX-

What I and I think many others find grating about Mushu is threefold: 1) His personality and vocal mannerisms are wildly anachronistic for the period during which Mulan is set, 2) his personality and vocal mannerisms (along with the race said personality and vocal mannerisms imply) are wildly foreign to the geographical region in which Mulan is set, and 3) the character smacks uncomfortably of the racist Bojangles/minstrel stock sidekick character from the 1940s. Sort of like Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace. Also, he's just not that funny. Again, like Jar Jar Binks.

Tim said...

What Colin said, and #3 is even worse in the sequel, when it's basically a blackface vocal performance. Though I will add:

4) He represents a comic style that is completely at odds with the feel of the rest of the movie, including the other comic relief characters, and he trivialises what would otherwise be a very strong, very serious movie (the same problem as the gargoyles in Hunchback", but worse).

Matt said...

I bought this movie back in 2005 and always found the scene where Shang yells at Mulan to be completly out of character in personality and (ESPECIALLY) in the animation (what the heck were the storyboard artists thinking when they boarded that sequence!?).

StephenM said...

Unlike most of the sequels you've reviewed here (thankfully), I have actually seen this one, or at least a good chunk of it. I can testify to it's awfulness, particularly in its incredibly overbearing yet totally screwy message.

The thing that really got about the "arranged marriages are bad" theme, aside from the fact that it's so anachronistic and pretty unfair, is that these aren't simple marriages just arranged for the prestige of a family or something, like usual in these sorts of stories. If memory serves, the marriages are explicitly set up as NECESSARY FOR THE PEACE AND STABILITY OF THE KINGDOM, as in, if the princesses don't marry, the other kingdom will attack China and thousands of people will die and who knows what could happen. But hey, that's no reason not to let a teen girl "follow her heart," because we all know romantic love is the most important thing in the universe and no matter how awful the consequences (to family, friends, country, etc) you should always follow that romantic impulse to the ends of the earth. It's a terrible, selfish moral that is pretty endemic to modern popular entertainment, but is here made especially noxious by spelling out such ridiculously high stakes.

Although, somehow it all works out in the end because everyone realizes the need for freedom, love and understanding, because of course it will. Which only makes it all more misleading.

Auntie Em said...

I find it genuinely offensive that my two all time favorite Disney animated films have, in my opinion, two of the worst sequels (this, and Hunchback). After being wholly inspired by a kick-ass female as a, dear God, EIGHT year old, and becoming fascinated with actual Chinese culture, I wanted to stab this movie in its metaphorical common carotid artery. Bleugh.

Scattered said...

I think that StephenM's comment speaks to what disturbed me most about this movie, which is that the CENTRAL CONFLICT, the DRIVING FORCE OF THE PLOT, never really gets resolved. We don't even know if the Emperor of Qui Gong is still going to go through with his alliance with China. Even the "Golden Dragon of Unity (*cough**cough*MUSHU*cough*)" doesn't address that. He just makes sure that everyone is marrying for love. So that invading army? Yeah, might still invade and destroy China. And Qui Gong.