Mulan revisited

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, he discusses the 1998 film Mulan.)

Walt Disney Animation Studios had come a long way in just over a decade. In the middle of the 1980s, they were on death’s door, with all their hopes pinned on a low-budget adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery for children. By 1998, the studio was approaching the tail end of the Disney Renaissance and a coming downswing. Financially, the studio’s last two films had been mild successes, which would have been all well and good had The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules not arrived in theaters after the game-changing hits Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King

As the decade wound to a close, Disney tried once again, for the third time in six years, to depict a culture of color in the hopes of turning it into a hit. And for the third consecutive summer, their event-level animated release was met with just mild success — though some ardent Mulan fans online might tell you differently about the 1998 action-adventure.

Let’s Get Down to Business

Mulan represented the fullest extent of Disney’s expansive powers in animation in the 1990s. Though Disney Animation was beginning to be beset upon by competition from DreamWorks SKG, 20th Century Fox, and others, their dominance in the industry was easy to spot considering the number of satellite studios they’d created outside of Burbank, California. There were studios in Canada, Japan, Australia, and France, the latter of which began life as Brizzi Studios, founded by animator brothers Paul and Gaetan Brizzi (who we’ll discuss in a later essay in this series). But in the States, there were just two Disney animation studios: the home base in Burbank, and Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida.

The Florida studio was opened in 1989 along with the third park in the Walt Disney World Resort, Disney-MGM Studios. (That park, which celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year, is now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios.) These days, Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida no longer exists, having been shut down soon after the release of the last film it primarily animated, 2003’s Brother Bear. But WDFA Florida was responsible for a good chunk of the Renaissance; its animators were the chief artists for the “Be Our Guest” sequence in Beauty and the Beast, and also animated nearly a quarter of The Lion King. The first feature that the Florida-based crew handled entirely was Mulan.

The genesis for Mulan, like the lifespan of the animation studio that brought it to life, extended to the earlier part of the 1990s. At the time, with Disney’s far-reaching ambitions expanding beyond even one film a year (they would achieve that goal for the first time in 1999), they were also looking to expand the scope, location, and style of their stories. Though a few projects with an Asian influence were in development at the time, fate made it so two different projects could become the one we know as Mulan.

Who I Am Inside

In the early 1990s, Disney was working with the late children’s author Robert D. San Souci on potential feature ideas at the same time that there was a short in development called China Doll. In China Doll, a Chinese girl fights against her oppressors until a British man sweeps her off her feet and takes her away from Imperialist China. San Souci pointed Disney towards the Chinese poem “The Song of Fa Mu Lan,” submitting a manuscript inspired by its tale. That, in effect, convinced executives that they had a feature to make from this story of a young Chinese woman who goes undercover as a man in the army to protect the rest of the men in her family from having to fight.

As the article linked above from Newsweek noted, what made Mulan manage to fly somewhat under the radar at the start was the fact that its filmmakers were lower on the totem pole among Disney’s animating elite. Barry Cook became one of the film’s co-directors, off the success of the 1992 short Off His Rockers, eventually being joined by fellow animator Tony Bancroft. (Neither Cook nor Bancroft had directed or co-directed a feature for Disney before, and — for whatever reasons — Mulan is the only Disney film either of them helmed.) Bancroft, at least, had worked on a number of other Disney animated features as a supervising animator — he was a supervising animator for Cogsworth, Iago, and Pumbaa in their respective films. 

Another key player in Mulan is an artist with a long history at Disney, as remembered for having legitimate frustrations with the studio as for his work there: Chris Sanders. Sanders is best known as the director of the 2002 Disney animated film Lilo & Stitch and the co-director of the first How to Train Your Dragon from DreamWorks. Sanders joined Mulan as a co-writer and story supervisor, at a point long after he had already made his own view on the current state of Disney animation well known. In 1989, as was eventually unearthed by Cartoon Brew, Sanders created a story for an animators’ retreat criticizing the management style at Disney, implying that the studio was hopelessly mired in a vicious cycle and unable to create truly distinctive work. (Keep in mind: this was published the same year as The Little Mermaid was released.)

Sanders had been a story artist on a few of the early Renaissance pictures, including Aladdin and The Lion King. For Mulan, he was, as the authorized behind-the-scenes book The Art of Mulan dubbed him, “an unwilling recruit” to the project, perceiving that a film about a teenage girl who leaves home out of frustration based on her relationship with her father was the kind of thing the studio had done countless times before. (And again, please note: this anecdote was provided in an official Disney text.) Sanders was able to convince the rest of the writing team to shift away from a more comic take on Mulan dressing up as a man, taking the change more seriously and grappling with her choice as one of bravery and sacrifice.

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