Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
1998’s Mulan felt ominous for Disney. I was too young to gauge the cultural perception at the time, but it wouldn’t be long before the public’s relationship with Disney’s iconic princesses began to sour. Maybe “sour” is too strong of a term, but we started to demand more from the entertainment figures our kids revered. Mulan offered a princess who could kick ass and wasn’t simply looking for love. Without Mulan, we may not have had films with heroines like what we saw in Brave or Moana or Frozen. As a film, Mulan may not be your favorite or the funniest or the most emotionally gut-wrenching, but in terms of Disney’s grand scheme. As a princess, Mulan is no less important.
The stakes were relatively low for Disney to produce a sequel to Mulan. Although the original film was a box office hit, by 2005, when the sequel was released in the U.S., Disney had gone all-in on Pixar. Indeed, while Pixar released modern classics like Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc., Disney had all but stopped releasing original animated features in the new millennium outside of flops like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet.
What’s going on here?
The problem with Mulan II isn’t a lack of drama, memorable characters or stakes. It’s that it tries too hard to manufacture drama when it’s not necessary at all. With the original film, the stakes couldn’t be higher: Not only was Mulan forced to hide her identity in order to save her family, but she had to save China from invaders while doing so. Mulan II reduces the titular hero to a lovesick worrier caught in the midst of a late-’90s Disney Channel sitcom plot.
After returning home, Mulan lives an idyllic lifestyle with her family, practicing and teaching martial arts in her free time. It’s not long before General Li Shang comes and proposes marriage, and the first unnecessary plot contrivance reveals itself: Mushu, Mulan’s family’s guardian, learns that once a daughter is married, her husband’s guardians take over. Or something like that. Not wanting to be consigned to an eternity of loneliness, Mushu dedicates himself to breaking up Mulan and Shang despite his constant insistence that he’s Mulan’s best friend.
The duo is soon called away by the emperor to escort his three daughters to a neighboring region, where they’ll be offered as a peace deal — a pre-arranged marriage that Mulan is opposed to on principle. Because fan-favorite characters from the original must return, they invite Ling, Yao and Chien-Po to escort them on their mission. It’s amazing how much plot the filmmakers manage to cram into the first half of a 79-minute movie. If only any of it was interesting or original.
If you’ve seen any TGIF sitcoms or grew up watching any Saturday-morning cartoons where a new relationship comes in the way of two platonic best friends, you can guess what’s coming fairly easily throughout the rest of the film. Mushu’s conspiracy to break up Mulan and Shang has middling results at first until he succeeds, and the three escorts fall in love with the three princesses. All of this would be less offensive if it wasn’t already standing in the original film’s shadow. Mulan is compacted to a side character in her own film, left to constantly fret about whether the love of her life actually loves her or not. And the bits with the comic-relief characters are written well enough but not enough to carry the bulk of the film.
How much of the original is preserved?
For as many problems as the film has — and there are a lot — it still carries a decent message about following your heart. Where the original film concerned itself with showing that women could do manly things, Mulan II goes out of its way to argue that women have a right to choose their partner.
The most astounding aspect of this film is the voice cast, with most actors from the original returning. Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, BD Wong and Michelle Kwan (!) even join as newcomers, presumably because of their love for the original film because Disney could have easily hired some bargain-bin talent for these thankless roles. Mark Moseley does a pretty decent Eddie Murphy impression as Mushu, much better than Dan Castellaneta stepping in for Robin Williams in The Return of Jafar.
Does this ruin the original film?
For once, I’m going to say that this film does, in fact, render the original film almost useless. While it’s a nice development for Mulan to advocate for women’s rights as she did in the original, it’s the rest of the film, and her character’s involvement in it, that does her the biggest disservice. We’ve covered some bad, bad, bad films in this series, but none that have seemingly forgotten what the original was all about. Imagine if, in The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone forsook the family business and spent the entire time worrying that Kay didn’t actually like him.
In his TV Guide review, Robert Pardi says the film “merely apes the success of live-action martial arts films.” While I agree with Pardi’s overall critique of the film, Mulan II doesn’t even feature any martial arts scenes to warrant the comparison. There’s no action or intrigue, and the romance is strained at best; the original film excelled in all of those regards.
I did kinda laugh at Shang being chased around by various large animals, though. There, I said something nice.
- Next Time: You, reader. Me, watcher of Tarzan II.