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8. Mulan II (2004), dir. Darrell Rooney

I watched this on Saturday evening while staying with my sister, largely on the basis that we all fancied a quiet night in with the kittens, and she happened to have it recorded on their hard drive. And it's a good thing that we had the kittens to distract us, because the film itself was dire.

It's not that I am simplistically anti-Disney. I love The Little Mermaid for its bright optimism and sing-a-long soundtrack, and love Hercules for its witty, knowing take on Classical mythology. I also saw the first Mulan film with my sister when it first came out, and we both thought it was all right - typically Disneyfied, obviously, but nicely drawn and with at least a moderately feminist message.

This, though, is a straight-to-video sequel, and it shows. It looks cheaper, the songs are dreadful, there's barely any plot, and in fact most of the film really just consists of the characters being goofy or starry-eyed. There were also parts of it that I found grossly culturally offensive - particularly the song Like Other Girls, sung by three princesses who are being sent to marry three princes they have never met in order to cement a political alliance.

The essence of this song is that princesses have to be dutiful and do things that they don't want to do, whereas 'other girls' get to be free. Freedom includes eating cakes, running around, getting dirty, not worrying about manners, not being fussed over by nurses, and (the bit that really shocked me) not wearing pinchy shoes. Yes, that's right people - not wearing pinchy shoes.

In an effort to check whether this really was as culturally insensitive as I thought it was, I tried to work out when the Mulan films are meant to be set - i.e. were they really situated in a world when ordinary Chinese girls enjoyed almost total personal liberty, and princesses merely had to wear slightly pinchy shoes? It's not as simple a question as I thought. Apparently, the story of Hua Mulan, on which the films are based, first emerged in the 6th century AD, purporting to tell a story set in the 4th century. So far, so good, as actually the practice of foot-binding did not emerge until the 10th century. Maybe 4th-century princesses really did just wear slightly pinchy shoes?

But the story was also significantly re-worked during the Ming Dynasty (spanning our late medieval to early modern periods), by which time foot-binding certainly was practised. And in any case, the story as presented by Disney is clearly basically a fairy-tale, set in a Chinese equivalent to the generically 'olden times' which also form the setting for most of our European fairy-tales. The princesses singing the song are portrayed as belonging to a highly traditionalistic society, and surely it ought to occur to any western viewer with the slightest grasp of Chinese culture that that might well include the practice of foot-binding?

So I don't think it is appropriate to present cheap and cheerful songs featuring such princesses aspiring to a 21st-century western model of personal freedom, implying that this is something they might be familiar with, or indeed that even while they don't have it, the worst of the impositions which they have to put up with is having to wear slightly uncomfortable shoes sometimes. It seems to me a total denial of the culture the film is supposed to be portraying, to the point that it becomes grossly offensive, and you may as well not bother attempting to show a different culture at all.

OK, so it's a straight-to-video Disney film, and I should have known better. I doubt any of you are in much immediate danger of accidentally falling into the trap of watching it. But this one really is particularly well avoided. I've had the displeasure so that you don't have to.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 20th, 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)
Well, as I say, we actually spent much of the time while the film was on playing with the kittens and bitching to each other about how awful it was. But yeah - we could definitely have made a better choice of viewing material!
May. 20th, 2010 11:09 pm (UTC)
Speaking as a big Disney fan, never ever ever watch any of the sequels. It all started with the Aladdin ones, the first one of which actually wasn't half bad (never saw the second, so I can't speak for it), and then they just went crazy. Somehow they've managed to give Cinderella two sequels, although I don't really see how even one was required.

The way I see it is that the movies are made by people who do care about telling the story, but the sequels are where the transition to a franchise is made. Kind of like how many of the Disney Princesses are adventurous female characters in their own films, but transmute to tea-parties and pretty dresses in the Disney Princess line.

By the way, I'm glad to see another classicist who likes Hercules. I love it, even with all the willful inaccuracies. I remember when it came out, a fellow student was outraged that they'd made the Muses gospel singers, but I thought that was quite a clever spin on them.
May. 21st, 2010 08:40 am (UTC)
Yes, I think you're absolutely right about the sequels - especially about them really just being there to 'grow' the franchise. I also watched the sequel to The Little Mermaid a few years ago with my sister, and it was similarly weak (though not as bad as this one). I think I'll definitely resist the temptation in future.

And yes, I love Hercules, especially the Muses! I love the way they cut right in over Charlton Heston at the beginning of the film, and just roll from there. I think the songs in Hercules are great, too, with some fantastically clever lyrics and word-play. I actually own the soundtracks for both that and The Little Mermaid, and am not ashamed of it!
May. 21st, 2010 10:29 am (UTC)
I haven't seen any of the modern Disney films apart from Hercules which made me giggle lots. I think my favourites are Jungle Book and Aristocats.

BTW your sisters kittens look absolutely adorable.
May. 21st, 2010 10:41 am (UTC)
Some of them are pretty cool, but it can be hit and miss. Hercules works on a lot of different levels, but not all of them manage that. I thought Atlantis was pretty disappointing.

And yes - KEETONS!!! They trump everything, really.
May. 22nd, 2010 02:26 pm (UTC)
We (unfortunately) have quite a few straight to video Disney features at home, they really are very bad! I guess they're pretty low budget though. But be very relieved that you are not forced to sit through Angelina Ballerina.
May. 22nd, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
Hehe, yes - I don't envy you that!
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