|Mulan (Special Edition)|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 26 October 2004|
Simple stories touch the hearts of audiences for generations. No matter how society may change, no matter how technologically advanced civilization may become, no matter that focus shifts from a culture to an individual or back again, timeless tales stand the test of, well, time.
So it is with the “Mulan: Special Edition.” In the movie, Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na) is a young girl who doesn’t fit in with her culture. She likes being free and she likes doing the things that she wants to do. However, she is bound by her culture. As a girl, she is destined to come of age, find a husband and settle in to become a wife and mother. But when her beloved father is conscripted by the Emperor of China to go off to fight the Huns, who are overrunning the Great Wall, Mulan finds that she must step not only past but through the societal constraints so she can save her father.
The story begins in Chapter 2, with the resounding clamor of beating drums, muted so they sound a warning in the distance. The lone guard patrolling the Great Wall, built by the Emperor to hold back the rampaging forces of the Hun armies, gets attacked by a swooping falcon. The sound of the bird’s approach slashes through the surround sound system from left to right, and the thud of impact lights the subwoofer. The bird’s cry of triumph and warning a moment later echoes eerily, as though it really was voiced atop a great wall. Swiftly, Hun invaders rappel over the wall and Shan-Yu, the movie’s villain, takes center stage. Immediately, the threat sweeps the audience into the movie’s embrace, letting them know that whatever victories lie ahead won’t be easy ones. Fires light the night, letting all of China know that the Huns have breached the border. The Emperor sends out for an army to protect the people.
Interestingly enough, as revealed in the background information contained on the DVDs, the movie’s beginning was one of the hardest for the Disney team to decide on. The commentaries and specials devoted to that issue alone, along with the alternate takes, are extremely interesting not only to those who might want to pursue an entertainment career, but also for those curious enough to take another peek at Chinese culture.
Chapter 3 introduces the audience to Mulan. She’s young, impressionable and headstrong, exactly the kind of heroine that Disney seems to do so well these days. Mulan quickly joins the ranks of Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” Belle from “Beauty and the Beast,” Jasmine from “Aladdin” and the title character of “Pocahontas” as an audience favorite. The rooster’s crow splits the air and the day begins. Mulan works at her chores and the watcher gets a good general idea of what her life is like. Her father is also interrupted at his prayers and the trials and tribulations of raising a daughter are quickly revealed. His only hope for his daughter is that Mulan bring honor to the family. A brief cameo of Mulan’s mother and grandmother brings great hilarity as the grandmother tests out the luck of her new cricket. As she wades blindly across the street in the way of wagon traffic and trusts solely to the cricket’s luck, massive booms and horrific cracks sound in her wake as the hapless wagon drivers pile up their vehicles. The surround sound delivers it all right to the living room theater, making audiences want to duck and cover during the maelstrom.
Mulan suffers under her mother and grandmother’s ministrations in Chapter 4 much as any other teen today would. Her meeting with the matchmaker in Chapter 5 is hilarious, from the social interaction (including the attempt at cheating) to the sight gags (such as the matchmaker’s mustache, which will cause young viewers to giggle in delight). After failing to attract the matchmaker’s interest or engineer any hope for her mother and grandmother to get her married, Mulan learns of her father’s conscription into the Emperor’s army in Chapter 7.
With a definite sense of foreboding, Chapter 8 opens with the crackle and boom of rolling thunder that cascades through the surround sound system and jars the subwoofer to magnificent life. This is one of those scenes that makes the audiophile who has plunked down serious coin for a home theater system decide it was money well spent. The surround sound system turns the thunder’s voice into an oppressive force. Falling rain peals through the left, right and center speakers.
Mulan watches as her parents argue. The audience feels her despair and loneliness settling over them and drenching her as surely as the rain. Then comes that sparkling moment of decision, when Mulan decides to take matters into her own hands. The music up to that point wanders and is flavored with melancholy, then it turns resolute and determined, mirroring Mulan’s own decisive maneuvers as she takes her father’s armor, cuts her hair and decides to take his place in the Emperor’s army.
In Chapter 9, Mulan’s ancestors take part in the proceedings. Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy), the tiny dragon who has already made a mistake that cost one of the ancestors his head, is in charge of ringing the gong. The ancestors decide that Mulan can’t be left to her own devices or she will bring shame to the whole family. They send Mushu to get the Stone Dragon, but Mushu ends up accidentally breaking it. He goes off to help Mulan on his own, and his agenda isn’t to stop her but to help her become the greatest warrior in the history of China. His impersonation of the Stone Dragon is terrific and the kids will have a rollicking good time.
Chapter 11 opens with the roaring, rushing sound of a village aflame, the screeching falcon, and the heavy thunder of horses’ hooves. The movie turns once more to the threat that is Shan-Yu. He has two hostages who he sends to tell the Emperor that he is coming. At the last moment, he decides only one messenger is needed. An archer draws his bow meaningfully but the scene cut doesn’t show what inevitably happens.
Mushu (and Murphy) once more take center stage in Chapter 12. The little dragon announces himself in a church-like production of roaring flames, thunderous voice and even the accompaniment of organ music. The subsequent chapters follow Mulan as she becomes one of the Emperor’s conscripts. The bowling pin sound of the chow line falling into each other in Chapter 13 is a nice touch. Mulan passes herself off as a young soldier named Ping. Another nice touch comes in Chapter 18 as Mushu has the cricket write a letter, accompanied by the sound of typewriter keys. Unfortunately that noise, once so well understood, is swiftly going by the wayside.
Branded a troublemaker, Mulan/Ping becomes the sore point in Shang’s army. She obviously falls for him, but she can’t act on it. Her attempts to fit in with the men are funny, but she ends up making friends in spite of herself. Her course, though, is destined to bring her into contact with Shan-Yu and the movie’s final moments are both explosive and gratifying.
The special two-disc set comes packed with tons of additional material. Some of it is designed to attract the attention of the younger audience, but most of it is geared for the older watchers. The background stories of how the movie came together, all the art direction, character decisions and story arcs are interesting. The extras also show the love each person that worked on the film had for the project. Jackie Chan’s performance in the music video is surprising and good. The martial arts are dynamic. Unfortunately, this extra material doesn’t add much of interest for the younger audience.
This is the kind of movie that parents love to take their kids to: not only is it interesting for youngsters, but there’s also more than enough there for older viewers. However, if a family already owns the original “Mulan” DVD, they might give this one a miss unless the adults are interested in how the final cut of the movie came about.