The famed Disney Renaissance that mainly lasted in the 1990s truly provided some of the greatest animated movies. There are many iconic films from Walt Disney Animation Studios during that time that could be defined as some of the greatest animated movies ever made with how they were able to tell truly amazing stories that had breathtaking animation and memorable characters to back it up. While most of the true classics come from earlier in the Renaissance, a prime example of one of the best films from later in the era is easily "Mulan". Released in 1998, the film was able to continue Disney's ability to truly make amazing animated films and this film really does shine brightly all these years later. I was truly dazzled by it upon rewatch.
After Ancient China is invaded by the Huns led by the evil Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer), the Emperor (Pat Morita) orders that one man from every household in the land must join the army to fight for their country. The order goes throughout the land and eventually reaches the Fa family. While the only male in the family, Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh) accepts the position to fight for his land, his daughter Mulan (Ming-Na) protests feeling worried for him due to his health and weakened state. After an argument with him at dinner, Mulan decides to secretly take her father's place by disguising herself as a man and takes her father's armor. With the family worried that she'll be killed in battle or if discovered, they pray to the ancestors to help protect her. While the ancestors decide to send a giant stone dragon guardian to protect her, a disgraced former dragon guard named Mushu (Eddie Murphy) secretly goes instead wanting to get his honor back. Mushu eventually meets Mulan and he devises a way to help get her through training camp to fight in the way. While at the camp, she eventually meets the captain Li Shang (BD Wong) and her fellow soldiers Ling (Gedde Watanabe), Yao (Harvey Fierstein), and Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo). From there, Mulan learns to be a man and fight like a soldier before being sent off to battle to fight the Huns and the evil Shan Yu.
While I had loved this film from the first time I had seen it, I was really surprised to discover how really good it was upon rewatch. It was clear that Walt Disney Animation Studios decided to pull no punches when making this film which results in a very satisfying experience. The film was primarily produced in Disney Animation's secondary studio in Florida rather than in Burbank and it's clear the Florida team really put a lot of effort and passion into this film. The story is probably the main highlight of this film. Not only does it have the light upbeat qualities notable for Disney films, but it also has a lot of dark and sometimes brutal moments. The film and directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook pull no punches when making the film's dark moments and it really is effective. The biggest one, in particular, is where Mulan and the other soldiers reach a devastated village that was savaged by the Huns where they discover the Huns have killed all the soldiers and villagers including children indicated by Mulan picking up a little girl's doll. I loved moments like that and the fact it didn't get too dark. The film has the right amount of dark material and shows just enough to show how devastating war can be without going over the line and it's perfect. Not only that, but they're also are a lot of funny and cheerful moments in the film to balance it out including Mulan's meeting with a matchmaker as well as her trying to take a bath without getting exposed by Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po. It was the perfect balance that made it both fun and entertaining with a sometimes dark edge that didn't go over the line. As far as the animation goes, it really is gorgeous and holds up beautifully. Most of the films from the Disney Renaissance have produced some of the best animation ever crafted and this film is no exception. The film has some beautiful backgrounds and character animation so rich and detailed that it really makes it wonderful to watch. The film also utilizes a lot of visual storytelling and the animation really takes full advantage of it with Mulan's decision standing out in particular. The scene was storyboarded by Dean DeBlois who would go on to direct "Lilo and Stitch" and the "How to Train Your Dragon" trilogy and this film really shows his true potential which would grow in the aforementioned films. I also like how different this film looks compared to other Disney films. The character designs, in particular, are a big departure from other films as they lean toward ancient Chinese art and even details like smoke and snow are animated differently than they are in other animated films. I really loved moments like that. Even the CG elements really show off the size of the film with a scene with the Huns coming down a snowy mountain being the big highlight that rivals the wildebeest scene in "The Lion King". As far as the characters go, I really like most of them. Mulan is a great protagonist that really benefits from a very strong performance by Ming-Na. She's very skilled and determined while also strong and passionate and I love how she grows as a character to the end of the film. The other characters are also fun to with Li Shang being a good strong leader, Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po providing some funny comic relief while also be helpful, as well as Mushu who provides a lot of the films big laughs that can sometimes rival Eddie Murphy's other famous animated role of Donkey in "Shrek". I also want to mention that the songs are also very good and memorable and leave a big impression while not overshadowing the film. When the army reaches the devastated village as I mentioned before, the songs stop and the film relies on Jerry Goldsmith's gorgeous score for the rest. It was a very wise choice. If I did have one flaw I had with this film, I do wish that we saw the army engaging in more battles than we got. Most of the film had them at training camp which I don't mind, but I wish there was more involvement in the grand war they were fighting.
With that said, "Mulan" still is a grand spectacle all these years later. The story has the right balance of dark and light, the animation is exceptionally gorgeous and unique, the characters are all likable and have strong personalities, and the songs are memorable and have their right amount of time. This is easily one of the big highlights from the last half of the Disney Renaissance and I really love it. The film really does bring honor to the Disney legacy.