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.
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.
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:
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.
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