Reflections: 6 Pearls We Learned from the Creators of Disney’s Mulan

When the creative team of a Disney animated classic shows up and shares stories of how a film was made….it’s an unforgettable experience.  As an unadvertised treat, the creators of Disney’s Mulan surprised movie-goers at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood with an impromptu pre-screening panel discussion on January 26, 2017.

“Throwback Thursday” at the El Capitan offers the chance to see a Disney classic on the silver screen.  And in honor of Chinese New Year, the film was Mulan (1998).  Our ‘inside source’ for the panel discussion was director Tony Bancroft (@pumbaaguy1 on Twitter).

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What a treat to be at the El Capitan theater!  We were welcomed in the lobby with a digital gallery of Mulan concept art.

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As we settled into our seats with popcorn and drink (included in the ticket price), we were serenaded by Rob Richards, the resident organist.  For an hour, he played Disney musical favorites from memory, wrapping up with a medley from Mulan.

Tony Bancroft (co-director, Mulan, supervising animator for Pumbaa, Lion King, and co-host of “The Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast”) came on stage to introduce his fellow panelists:

(pictured from right to left)

  • Pam Coats (producer – Mulan, Lilo and Stitch, Roger Rabbit short Trail Mix-Up, Fantasia 2000)
  • Barry Cook (co-director, Mulan; animator – Tron and Captain Eo)
  • Mark Henn (supervising animator – Mulan and Fa Zhou, Mulan; Belle, Beauty and the Beast; Jasmine, Aladdin; Ariel, The Little Mermaid)
  • Alex Kupershmidt (supervising animator – Khan and General Li, Mulan; Stitch, Lilo & Stitch; Hyenas, The Lion King)
  • Matthew Wilder (music for Mulan; writer for Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, and The Voice)

We have loved Mulan since its release (and now it’s a ‘Classic’!), and were surprised by several stories that the Animation team shared.

Here are 6 ‘Pearls’ that we learned about Mulan.

Pearl 1 –  Mulan’s story at Disney Animation began when Barry Cook was handed a children’s book entitled The Legend of Mulan, and told ‘see what you can do with this.’

This property had been acquired by Disney, and they wanted to explore ideas.

Cook brought co-director Tony Bancroft on the project.  We can’t argue with the results.

Barry and Pam described their 18-day research trip to China.  When they spoke to locals about the tales of Mulan, they learned that she is “huge in China.”  With such a culturally significant character, they felt a great responsibility to “bring honor to her and what she represented.”

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Pearl 2Mulan was the first film completed almost entirely at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida.

Florida animators had experience doing ink and paint on The Little Mermaid, and “B Team” segments from Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, but had never been given an entire feature film until Mulan.

“We didn’t know we couldn’t do it, so we did it.”  The young talent in Orlando got to work.

“We knew her [Mulan] so well…we grew to love her and know her like a real person,” said the team.  This love truly showed in the work produced by the Disney Animation Studios in Florida (1989-2004).  The Studio credits include Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear.

It is worth noting the current-day animation leaders who got their start during these Florida productions.  Among them: Chris Sanders, Chris Williams, Paul Briggs, Byron Howard, Nathan Greno, and Dean DeBlois, to name a few.  These filmmakers are responsible for multiple animation blockbusters, and include Oscar nominees and an Oscar winner. Can we get a “Yoo-hoo! Big summer blowout!”

Pearl 3Mark Henn holds the record as the ‘fastest animator in Disney history.’

Mulan and her father’s relationship formed the “heart and soul of the film,” said the directors.  Because of this integral relationship, Mark Henn was asked to pen both Mulan and Fa Zhou.

And he certainly delivered. Mark Henn’s output for Mulan totaled an astounding 1,700 feet of animation.  The next-closest records for animators (including the Nine Old Men) were 1,000-1,200 feet of animation for a feature film.

Pearl 4 –  The exposing story of Mulan’s ‘big reveal.’  There were many storyboards of how Mulan’s true identity as a woman would be revealed.  Mark Henn admitted that he ‘took it a little bit too far’ with the original idea that she would be discovered in front of all the other soldiers.

Pam Coats, being the resident female on the creative team, stepped in to “protect the integrity of who Mulan was.”  The more modest doctor-in-the-medical-tent version prevailed.

Pearl 5The tone-setting “Reflection” song from Mulan was originally twice as long.  Long enough for Mulan to ride Khan in the rain and return home.  But, because of the somber tone of this song so early in the film, the directors felt they needed to ramp up the story.

“They cut my song in half,” lamented Matthew Wilder.  While a significant section of his animation was cut from the song, Alex Kupershmidt (supervising animator for Khan) used other scenes to explore the loyal relationship between rider and horse through the rest of the film.

The team described “tent-poling the moments” in storyboards with songs.  “Reflection” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” figured prominently in the process.

Pearl 6“Keep ‘em Guessing” was a song was originally written for Eddie Murphy (‘Mushu’), but “Eddie wouldn’t sing it.”

The team was looking for a way to introduce Mushu to Mulan.  Initially, a song seemed to be in order.

We were treated to an audio scratch track of “Keep ‘em Guessing” performed by Matthew Wilder accompanied by storyboards for this fully-written song. The tune was jazzy and smooth, with lyrics including “beef and broccoli” and “I’m ready to coach you…Reality’s a drag…Keep ‘em guessing, the truth is too depressing…”

When that didn’t work, they pitched a rap song for Eddie Murphy.  Wilder described the utter silence and ‘crickets’ at the end of the pitch.  Tom Schumacher, then-President of Disney Feature Animation, ‘hated it’ and was “not letting that into my movie.”

In the final film, Mushu’s impressive introduction to Mulan was inspired by Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live skit: ‘James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party.’

Mushu: Did I hear someone ask for a miracle? Let me hear you say “aaah”!

Mulan: Aaaah!

The rest is history.

Brush with Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D:” Melinda May

Ming-Na Wen (voice of Mulan) was very sorry she could not make it to the reunion panel, and she tried to FaceTime in.  Apparently, FaceTime was blocked on the Marvel set where she is currently filming as ‘Melinda May’ on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”  Perhaps some super-secret stuff on the set?

Ming-Na then voice-called in, and was able to say ‘hi’ to guests via speakerphone.

The Feature Film

The vibrant colors and crisp details of Mulan leapt off the big screen at the El Capitan, as we saw the movie for the first time in digital projection.  The filmmakers had just given us a glimpse behind the making of Mulan, making us treasure this classic even more.

Mulan Family Reunion

After the screening, all the cast and crew were invited on-stage for a big family reunion photo.

The panel members were so kind to stay afterwards to greet guests and take pictures.  Here, Tony Bancroft and Mark Henn meet with Kayla Oh, a friend of Mulan in Orlando.

Of course, we always wish there was more time to answer all those burning questions.  Like, why was Little Brother a dog and not a human?  That will have to wait for a future panel…or maybe a Bancroft Brothers podcast.

A big ‘Thank You’ to Tony Bancroft for coordinating this Mulan reunion screening!  And 谢谢 (thank you) to all the panelists for giving us a peek into your world, and so generously spending time with guests.

You bring honor to us all.

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