It’s A Visual Medium: Mulan (1998)

02/18/2015  By  Martin R. Schneider     Comments Off

This article is part of an on-going series exploring visual communication in films. For the rest of the series, click HERE.

One of the greatest things about animation for storytellers is that it allows directors to present information to the audience in ways that you can’t necessarily do in live action, allowing you to physically alter the universe your characters live in, in order to drop subtle hints visually preparing your audience for what they are about to encounter. Animators must be careful to make sure that their designs and ideas all “fit” together, because they are literally creating a world, and if there is, for example, a drastically different, unexplained switch in animation style or character design halfway through the film, it’s jarring in the minds of the audience, which are already busy at work processing the fictional universe in front of them.

Disney’s 1998 animated film, Mulan (dirs. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook), offers many examples of the proper way to play with an animated universe in order to prepare the audience for a satisfactory payoff. In this case, most everything in the film is preparing you for the movie’s most exciting sequence, the avalanche scene. Let’s take a look at some of the changes and visual motifs present in Mulan.

Mulan’s Eyes:

When we first meet Mulan, one of her most distinct facial features is her narrow, almond-shaped eyes. They make her seem approachable and warm, and are adaptable for the animation team, allowing them to show both a sense of vulnerability (The “Reflection” sequence we’ll look at later,) and of strength:

However, there is a drastic change in Mulan’s appearance from that shot onwards. After she picks up her father’s sword, the next time we see Mulan, she looks like this:

See the difference?

Mulan’s new, wide, rounder eyes stay with her the entire time she is in her “Ping” disguise.

Until the avalanche scene, where Mulan is injured. She closes her eyes in pain, and when she opens them, they look like this again:

Indicating that she is about to switch back into “female” mode. Indeed, the very next scene features Mulan’s secret being discovered, and the death of the “Ping” disguise. Her eyes remain their original shape for the rest of the movie.

The Swirls:

This is one of my favorite parts of the film. Take a look at the bubbles overflowing from the bath caused by Mulan as she prepares to meet the Matchmaker:

 

Now check out the design on the snow careening over the cliff during the avalanche, also caused by Mulan:

It’s a very cool bit of visual foreshadowing.

This isn’t the only time those swirls appear throughout the film. They’re a visual motif that is used heavily to cause callbacks in your brain, as a way to make the way things look in this animated universe make sense to you. They appear in the clouds during the “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” sequence, as another reference to Mulan’s relationship with buckets of water:

They also show up in pillars of smoke, which is a pretty crucial focal point for a film revolving heavily around fireworks with a dragon for one of the main characters:

They serve as the background for this shot during the training sequence:

 Which is the setup for this later shot, visually explaining the progress and confidence Mulan has gained through her journey:

Further, they serve as framing devices for these two similar shots of the film’s Wise Elders, which is fitting as family and ancestry are one of the many themes in this film:

The swirls are an important indicator, a piece of visual narration that connects the sequences of the film into one cohesive world, without needing to say anything. They tell the audience “This is the world we’ve created that Mulan lives in, and this is what things look like in this world.” This is why, although they’re a simple background design, it’s vital that their design be used frequently, and consistently.

Reflections:

This should be an easy one, as there’s an entire song in the movie about it. It is literally the film’s main theme.

We’ve already looked at the shot of Mulan looking at herself in the reflection of her father’s sword, now compare that to her observing her reflection in the water at the beginning of the song “Reflection”

In particular, look at the change in confidence between the two images, and how Mulan is drawn (Again, check the eyes), to portray that.

But Mulan isn’t the only person who does this in the film.

Although we never see his reflection, it’s very obvious given what we know, that when building a spot to honor his father, Shang is also looking into his father’s sword and seeing his own reflection. Like Mulan, he’s trying to see some of his father in himself.

Immediately following this, is the beginning of the avalanche battle. Shang, blinded by grief for his father, orders the last cannon to be fired directly at Shan-Yu, a tactic which would obviously leave the team to deal with hundreds of remaining Huns. Mulan, of course, has a better idea, and where does the inspiration for that come from?

Obviously, it would be just as easy to have Mulan look up and see the mountain and get her plan that way, but a deliberate choice was made to have her see it in the reflection. Homework time: Why do you suppose that is? Remember that Mulan’s father was a renowned warrior in his time, and when looking at his sword to remember what he would do, Mulan finds the strength and inspiration for her own Warrior’s Journey.

I mentioned earlier that many times films are building towards a visual payoff, and Mulan’s ends with this. It is the culmination of all the themes discussed in this section, and such a beautiful shot that I feel it’s the best possible ending point for this entry.

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About Martin R. Schneider

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Martin Schneider has opinions about a lot of things, and sometimes he writes them down. But he tries not to be a douchebag about it, though.