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`MULAN' BREAKS THE MOLD WITH GIRL POWER; NEWEST HEROINE ISN'T TYPICAL DISNEY DAMSEL WAITING FOR HER PRINCE TO COME.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Daily News Film Writer

You know what you're going to get when you watch a Disney animated feature and, at least initially, the studio's 36th such effort, ``Mulan,'' neither surprises nor disappoints.

All the conventions are there. The snappy songs. The rousing score. The linear storytelling. The cute little critters who will soon be disappearing from the shelves of Disney stores across America.

But ``Mulan'' isn't like past Disney animated efforts in one important respect - the title character herself. Where many past Disney heroines have been passive or dependent or waiting for Prince Charming to come and save the day, Mulan takes matters into her own hands. When her aging warrior father is conscripted to fight the Huns, she cuts off her hair, disguises herself and takes his place in the army. She's smart, she's strong, she's resourceful and she's Asian (a Disney first). If Prince Charming did show up, she'd probably find him a bore.

``She doesn't look like a Barbie doll this time, either,'' says longtime Disney animator Mark Henn, who has overseen work on past leading ladies, including Ariel (``The Little Mermaid''), Belle (``Beauty and the Beast''), Jasmine (``Aladdin'') and Pocahontas.

``I think that fact alone will make her a lot more accessible,'' Henn adds. ``That and the fact nobody will mistake Mulan for a princess.''

Probably not. Mulan is often clumsy and never dainty. She fails miserably during her interview with a matchmaker, spilling tea all over ancient China's version of Martha Stewart. But she finds her way once she puts on her father's armor, although she never loses sight of the fact that she's a young woman, completely rejecting her comrades' butt-scratching, nose-picking and macho-for-macho's-sake ways.

Mulan wasn't always so substantial, though. Five years ago, when Disney animators began reworking a short feature called ``China Doll,'' the heroine was a waifish Chinese girl who fought a losing war against tyranny until a British soldier came and swept her away. Nobody liked the character, so the writers went back to a Chinese poem, ``The Song of Fa Mu Lan,'' for inspiration. But the poem only took them so far. They were still battling the legend - and the formula - of past Disney epics.

``Early on, she was more of a tomboy going off to play soldier,'' says co-director Tony Bancroft.

Adds directing partner Barry Cook: ``There was another story line that had her running off to war to escape a bad situation at home, either bad parents or a forced marriage. That didn't work. Then she was driven by a romance she had with the captain of the soldiers. And that just ruined everything.''

Eventually, story editor Chris Sanders found the right balance. Mulan would be a quirky, imperfect girl who goes to war to save her old warrior father. She's motivated by love - love for her father, her emperor and her country. It's that selflessness, Bancroft says, that separates Mulan from other Disney heroines.

``She doesn't want to change herself and she isn't looking for a better life,'' Bancroft says. ``She just wants to be accepted for who she is.''

Pride of Florida

The same could be said for Disney's Florida animation studio. ``Mulan'' is the first full-length movie to come from Orlando, and animators worked as if they had something to prove. Of course, this being Disney World, many were on display for tourists while they were working, coloring in backdrops in glass cubicles as tourists gawked. But, they say, that fishbowl existence was a small price to pay for artistic freedom from Burbank.

``There was a real pride of ownership,'' says Cook, who lives in Florida. ``We weren't just helping Burbank; we were doing something on our own. And that gave us freedom in a way because it made us rely on our own resources. If we were in California, we probably would have gone downstairs and asked for ideas when we ran into problems. Here, we were more or less on our own and we had to come up with the solutions. It made it a bit of an adventure.''

Bancroft believes that being away from Disney's Burbank lot might have helped in another way as well.

``Early on in the project, they weren't paying much attention to us,'' Bancroft says. ``They were concentrating on `Pocahontas' and `The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' so we had a little more leeway to experiment. There wasn't quite the same amount of pressure.''

That same low-key atmosphere has continued even now that ``Mulan'' is finished and playing in theaters. Disney has lowered the hype surrounding the movie by a good 25 percent, according to marketing and distribution president Dick Cook, and that's certainly evident in the way the studio is promoting the film. For one thing, the marketing budget has been cut from the $60 million spent promoting ``Hercules'' to about $30 million for ``Mulan.'' The new strategy: Let the movie speak for itself.

As such, there was no extravagant premiere like the $4 million electric light parade that accompanied ``Hercules'' or the French Quarter celebration and New Orleans Super Dome screening for ``The Hunchback of Notre Dame.'' The promotional tie-in with McDonald's didn't begin until this week, about the same time most of the toys began appearing. And the advertising campaign primarily targeted adults, figuring they would be the toughest crowed to lure in.

``I think they're being smart about the marketing,'' Bancroft says. ``Instead of pushing the film down people's throats, Disney is being a little more mysterious this time. I think it goes quite well with the theme of `Mulan' and its setting in China.''

Of course, not everything surrounding ``Mulan'' has changed. When it came time for Mattel to create a Mulan doll, the company initially made her a carbon copy of - you guessed it - its most famous ideal of feminine beauty, Barbie. It was all producer Pam Coats could do to get the toy company to reduce the cleavage and base Mulan's figure on Midge, Barbie's slightly less endowed gal pal.

``We were disappointed that we couldn't get our own Mulan body type because we wanted it to be true to the character and true to the culture,'' Coats says. ``But at least she's less buxom than the original version. I think there will be people who appreciate that.''

Count among them actress Ming-Na Wen (``The Joy Luck Club''), the voice of Mulan.

``The Asian community needs this movie,'' Wen says. ``It's nice to look up on the screen and see Asian faces and the Asian culture spotlighted. None of the usual stereotypes are anywhere to be seen.''

Neither is Prince Charming. Just a couple of the things that make ``Mulan'' a heroine in every sense of the word.

CAPTION(S):

4 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) WOMAN WARRIOR

Disney's `Mulan' revives a feisty heroine for the ages

(2) When her aging father is conscripted to fight the Huns, a Chinese girl disguises herself and takes his place in the army in Disney's animated ``Mulan.''

(3) no caption (Mulan)

(4) `It's nice to look up on the screen and see Asian faces and the Asian culture spotlighted. None of the usual stereotypes are anywhere to be seen.'

Ming-Na Wen

voice of Mulan
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 19, 1998
Words:1201
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