Mulan (1998) and Hercules (1997) (review)

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Disney: A Victim of Its Own Excess

Damn! Mulan is thisclose to being not just a brilliant animated film, but a brilliant film, period. It has a dramatic story, a heroine who kicks butt, a villain who kicks butt, a square-jawed hero with a not-so-nice side, and some of the most sweepingly gorgeous visuals since Beauty and the Beast. But Mulan is dragged down by insipid songs that feel tacked on and silly, inappropriate sidekicks and secondary characters.

’Tis Beauty killing the Disney beast. Beauty and the Beast — one of my very favorite movies — was sheer perfection, from the stunning and clever animation to the complex, literate songs interwoven beautifully with the characters and plot to the witty, original script to the wonderful voice performances. The all-singing, all-dancing cast of teapots and candlesticks and beasts was totally in keeping with the story and atmosphere of the film — in fact, the movie would have been incomplete without them.

But the success of Beauty made it a template for the Disney animation to come, however unsuitable that template might be. It worked for Aladdin — magic genies can cavort and sing all they want — but it turned the sinister tragedy of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame into a Renaissance Festival romp full of wisecracking gargoyles and colorful confetti. And since the untimely death of lyricist Howard Ashman — who, with scorer Alan Mencken, wrote the songs for Beauty and The Little Mermaid, and some of Aladdin’s tunes — the Disney songs have been shallow and banal. (The sole exception is The Lion King, with songs by Elton John, who came to Disney with a track record of writing moving music.)

You needn’t have been at the planning meetings for Mulan to imagine what was said. A Chinese chick disguises herself as a boy and joins the army to save her poor old crippled dad from having to join! High concept! She fights Huns! We love it! Just add a jive-talkin’ dragon and maybe a cute little cricket — something we can mass produce for pennies apiece and chuck in millions of Happy Meals. And get someone to dash out a few quick tunes so we can fill out the soundtrack. Get Michael Bolton’s agent on the phone — he can belt out a pop version of the hero’s ballad and we’ll get some Top 40 airplay.

You can almost hear the creative folks behind Mulan groaning and trying to defy the marketing types and tell her story that way it should be told. The animators employ the palette and style of Chinese painting to gorgeous effect. The performances by Ming-Na Wen as Mulan and BD Wong as Captain Li Shang (the impossibly square-jawed hero) are restrained and nuanced. The villain — Shan Yu, the leader of the invading Huns — is quite compelling: Visually, he’s one of the most frightening bad guys in the Disney oeuvre (he looks like one of the mercenary Ogrons from Doctor Who), and he’s voiced by the dangerously sexy (or sexily dangerous?) Miguel Ferrer, who growls his every line so that you can’t wait to hear him speak again.

But Mulan grinds to a halt for several perfunctory songs that do nothing to illuminate the characters, and the film’s almost reverent tone is jarred by the characters of Mushu, the miniature dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, and the good-luck-charm cricket (who doesn’t speak). Mushu is amusing and Murphy is fine, and the cricket is very cute, but Mulan’s isn’t a cute story. The powers-that-be took what should have been an historical drama, ran it through the Disney marketing machine, and ended up with a hodgepodge that is ultimately unsatisfying.

Yep, Mulan is doing well at the box office — the kiddies are loving it. And I’m certain The Disney Corporation doesn’t give two figs that a lot of imaginative grown-up film fans are longing for the perfection of the Disney films of five years ago. But I’ll never forget sitting in packed theaters for late-night showings (ie, no kids present) of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King and hearing all those grownups sniffling back tears of pure joy.

the disaffection sets in?
Are there hints of the beginning of possible rebellion among Disney’s creative types in Hercules?

Put last summer’s Disney outing in the Aladdin class: bland, bumbling, teen hero; hip, self-referential attitude; over-the-top villain. (Unlike Aladdin’s, however, the tunes here are drippy and utterly forgettable.) Herc’s is a Supermanesque story: Cast out of Mount Olympus when a couple of Hades’s toadies make him mortal, he is taken in by Ma and Pa Kentus types and raised as their own. When his out-of-control superstrength gets to be too much for his hometown, Herc (Tate Donovan) takes up with trainer-to-the-stars (think Achilles) Philoctetes, aka Phil (Danny Devito), a midget satyr with ’tude, and sets out to seek his fortune in Thebes, the Big Olive.

The creatives littered the movie with thematically appropriate references to tickle literate grownups — the three-headed hellhound Cerberus, the wicked Fates — and gave the heroine, Meg (Susan Egan) a dark and snide side that Disney heroines rarely have. James Woods was obviously let loose as Hades — he steals the show, as evidenced by the online devotion he’s inspired.

But it’s when Hercules hits it big that you can almost feel the glee the writers and animators must have reveled in as they riffed on Disney’s business methods. Hercules lends his mug to soda bottles and sandals (Air Herc — no kidding), mosaic-tile billboards and theme stores. Even Hades’s hilarious minions, Pain (Bob Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), get suckered in by Hercmania.

Amusing, yes. Fluffy, definitely. But with no more staying power than those Hercules action figures that were already resigned to Odd-Lot by last Christmas.

see also:
Mulan (2020) movie review: girl (and film) at war with the world (#DisneyPlus)

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