And it wasn't a bad movie, really. Like the first Mulan, it had lovely watercolor-style backgrounds, a smart heroine who takes the initiative, and a love interest who has no problem admitting that he likes her for herself. (When Shang is furious with Mulan in the first movie, it's not because she's stepping out of her station in life or whatever, it's because she's been telling him a big, honking lie, and he's hurt.) Mushu the dragon with attitude is still one of the funnier talking animal sidekicks, his attitude of total self-involvement showing up a fake every time things get rough for Mulan. The plot of M2 is trite and predictable (three princesses, three guards, do the math), but that's to be expected in this sort of business. I'll even give them points for dropping the politically correct "Hun" enemy and actually managing to point out that China's enemies on the northern border were, unsurprisingly, Mongols.
The problem is that it's not about anything. It has a plot, certainly, but the opening of the movie has song dealing with balance, the imagery used in it is the yin/yang duality, with the idea that both are needed to achieve harmony. It's a very good message, and one that's interesting to play with, and I don't think they were deliberately saying, "Eh... we're just messing with you. Who needs balance?" But that's exactly what they said.
Because, you see, the real message of the movie that Fa Mulan is always right.
The scenario that's presented is that she and Shang, who have not, after all, known one another for a great length of time, have decided to marry, but as they are on a mission to deliver three princesses to neighboring Kigon for their arranged marriages, the two of them discover that they have some differences in their approach. Mulan's parents have already noticed this, and before they go, they give the young couple a pair of yin/yang pendants and remind them that both are needed to create balance and life. This is good! This could be an actual sort of look at building a relationship. Shocking.
So here are the two people involved:
Mulan is given to breaking the rules and following her heart, using her intuition and rushing into things. "My duty is to my heart," she says.
Shang is given to following the book, to taking things cautiously and using his brain. "Your duty is to the Emperor," he responds. ("The Emperor," in the case of these movies, is no less than China itself--his answer isn't "Be a slavish follower," but "You have a duty to things beyond yourself.")
So far, so good. This is mirrored in the dilemma of the guards and the princesses, who have (naturally) fallen conveniently in love. The princesses are meant to marry to seal a treaty of alliance with Kigon to defend China against the Mongols, but they are quite unhappy and want to be "like other girls," as their musical number tells us. The guards are, well, guards, but are still seeking, as they were in Mulan, "a girl worth fighting for," and have been having abysmal luck in their pursuits until they meet the princesses.
So you have a macro plot and a micro plot, both focusing on the decision between being true to oneself and being true to one's duty--the good of the one versus the good of the many.
It's a classic dilemma, and it would be fair to expect that we'd see each of the characters grappling with it in some way, with the price for being out of balance shown in the plot developments, maybe using the princesses to try different paths--Mei could run off with Yao, going totally with her heart, and end up in the middle of a Mongol battle in the northern provinces that she was supposed to marry to protect (causing a battle scene and a stirring song, probably). Su could refuse Chi'en Po to do her duty, but be miserable. And Ting Ting could find a middle path, maybe choosing to marry Ling but going to negotiate the peace treaty on some other level. (Or something.) It wouldn't have to be anything complex or dire, just a few different ways to look at the issue, while Mulan and Shang figured out what they were doing.
Is this how it went?
Not even close.
All the princesses, at different speeds, give in to the desire to be like other girls. The guards help them escape. Mulan claps and says how happy she is for them (she has already expressed her disapproval of the arranged marriages). Shang tries to stick to the book and talk about duty, but no one listens.
Okay, so when they refuse to listen to him, there's a Mongol invasion, right? Or some kind of reprisal from Kigon?
No, and more of same.
Shang does, in fact, learn to listen to his heart, and rides rashly into the middle of marriage Mulan is going to go into to help the princesses. At which point he denounces rules and Mulan happily cheers him on while Mushu does a trick with a ceremonial dragon. She has been willing to sacrifice herself (while she thought Shang dead for various reasons), but doesn't argue with him at all based on having learned that there is an important treaty to be made. She never once comes to value the concept of duty to something besides the heart--to the nation, to peace, to whatever. The princesses are given permission (by Mushu) to marry whomever they want.
And the issue of the alliance is not raised again.
There is no price whatsoever for saying, "Aw, to heck with China's northern border. Let's snog." There is no compromise made, no balance reached. The essence of the solution is that everyone is taught to think exactly like Mulan, while Mulan learns nothing at all.
One of the most effective moments in the first movie was, after a cheerful song about the trials and tribulations of finding a good woman, coming across a village that had been burned out by Hun hordes, with the implication that the entire population had been slaughtered. The army sent to defend it, including Shang's father, is left dead in the snow. They're fighting a war, and against brutal enemies, and the stakes are absolutely clear. Mulan isn't on a lark. On the interpersonal level, when Mulan's lie is revealed, the response of the men is understandable--she has been a recipient of their trust and good will, and it's revealed that she lied. It's only when she acts as herself that they accept her again. Again, high stakes, if in the personal realm.
What are the stakes in Mulan 2? Nothing. The Emperor says that China will be destroyed by the Mongols if the alliance isn't made, but the only person in the script who cares about that is Shang, who must be taught not to be so stuffy and to follow his heart. Mulan is not faced with a situation like Shang was in the first movie, where she has to be made to understand Shang's motives and realize that she loves and respects him anyway (except in one instance, where she comes to understand that he had been totally misled by Mushu and was acting on incorrect information, which isn't quite the same). No, of course not--she accepts all, she knows all, and she is always right.
Are the people writing these things really so completely unable to conceive of duty to something other than individual love that they don't even realize they betrayed the premise of their own script? That the movie is so far out of balance that it falls over as easily as the little girl Mulan is teaching to fight at the beginning?
It had potential. What happened? Why don't people think?
(And no, I don't think I'm asking too much of a Disney cartoon. The issues were dealt with in the first movie in a very mature and thoughtful manner without becoming too complicated. The same thing happened in The Lion King... serious issues in the theatrical release, simplistic nonsense in the video release. What gives?)