Love and Loss in the Name of China
I've noted this before but the mark of a good sequel is that it finds an angle on the original setting and provides a new, fresh story that feels just as essential as the work that came before it. The issue with most sequels, Disney or otherwise, is that only very rarely do they feel essential. It took Hollywood 100 years to figure out what can make a sequel, or extension of a franchise, feel like a necessary part of a series, and arguably even the recent spat of sequels, sequels, and more sequels can feel tiring (with plenty of entries feeling less than fresh). The number of good sequels has steadily gone up but most people can only point to a few, enough to be counted on two hands, that truly feel essential to a series.
Disney understood there. There's a reason that, only recently, has Disney even allowed sequels to their animated masterpieces to be released in theaters. Direct-to-video (or even made-for-television) was the domain of their sequels because even Disney, the House of Mouse with theme parks designed to do nothing but grab all your cash, felt that releasing animated sequels into theaters would tarnish their animated brand. When even Disney thinks a soulless cash grab goes too far, you know it's truly soulless.
So it's easy to dismiss the various animated sequels to the Disney PrincessesReleased in 1937, Disney's Snow White was a gamble for the company: the first fully-animated, feature-length film ever created. It's success lead to the eventual creation of the Disney Princess franchise, which has spawned 13 main-line films and multiple spin-off movies and shows. line. These films, made to cash in on the various hits of the Disney Renaissance (from Little Mermaid through Tarzan) , really can't be held to the same standards of their predecessors. For instance, Mulan as made by the head studio on a budget of $90 Mil, while Mulan II was produced by the Japanese office of Disneytoon Studios on a budget small enough Disney didn't even report it. One of these films is considered a masterpiece (although I admittedly wasn't a fan) while the other is an easily forgotten, but inoffensive, bit of direct-to-video bin fodder. The two are night and day.
But, as I said, Mulan II is just an inoffensive lark. It's not essential, by any stretch, barely moving the needle forward for it's lead characters Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) and Shang (BD Wong). They start the film in love and about to get married and end the film in love and married. Their social status and position doesn't really change at all, making this film little more than place setting. It does the job of showing that Mulan continues to exist past her one animated movie and, well, that's it. For little kids that loved the first film this video probably would entertain. For the adults that have to sit through it, the film at least isn't complete garbage. That's our low bar but Mulan II squeaks over it.
In the film, Shang and Mulan get engaged. On the even of their wedding, as Mulan's family busily plans, Shang is called to the emperor. He's given an important mission o transport the Emperor's three daughters across the country to an important principality so that the girls could marry the sons of the Kingdom of Qui Gong. To ensure the mission goes off without a hitch Shang calls on not only Mulan, his right-hand woman, but also the lovable military losers of Gedde Watanabe as (Ling), Harvey Fierstein (Yao), and Jerry Tondo as (Chien-Po).
As it happens, though, the three lovable idiots are all pining for woman who will love them. And, wouldn't you know it, there are three princesses who are marrying not for love by duty. Once the three guys spy the princesses -- Lucy Liu as Princess Mei, Sandra Oh as Princess Ting-Ting, Lauren Tom as Princess Su -- it's love at first sight... in both directions. This makes the mission to drop the girls off and do their duty a perilous one. Also not helping this is Mushu (voice-alike for Eddie Murphy, Mark Moseley) who feels he's going to et fired once Mulan marries Shang and takes his ancestral protectors leaving Mushu out of a job. he tries to foil their betrothal. It's a whole lot of love, and mishaps, on the trip across China.
Before we get into critiquing the film as a whole I do feel like I have to single out some of the story machinations. The Emperor sends his three daughters (who, we are led to assume, are his only offspring) out to get married and they're led on the mission by a whopping five men. Princesses, just at a tactical level, are very valuable. One princess would, in theory, be enough to strike up an alliance with another country. Sending three is beyond overkill. On top of that, only having three men to guard arguably the three most valuable women in the country is beyond silly. Hell, the movie acknowledges at one point there could be bandits about and yet the princesses nearly outnumber then whole of the group sent to defend them. Oooookay.
If we can ignore that setup obviously done so that each character in the movie can fall in love with one of the princesses (like a low-rent Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), the story is... fine. It would have made more sense to have the ladies meet up at a neutral point to marry themselves off to three kingdoms, but if this is how we have to so it I guess it's fine. I do wish the movie wasn't so obvious about it -- as soon as there were three princesses revealed, and three unwed men looking for love, it was clear where the story was headed -- but again, it's fine. Not great, just fine.
The whole sub-plot with Mushu is annoying, but then Mushu as a character is annoying so that only makes sense. Mushu worrying about his place in the family is one of those problems that could easily be rectified in five seconds simply by talking to Mulan. "Hey gurl, I'm feeling insecure," and she'd be all, "naw, homie, we tight." Hell, that's literally the conversation they have (well, not literally, but more or less) after an hour of Mushu being a dick, when he finally talks to her about his place in the family. Everything in this film could have been avoided with one simple conversation at the start of the film. That part I do find annoying because I hate it when a lack of conversation in films allows stupid plot machinations to happen.
The film does feature a couple of songs. The opening training song, "Lesson Number One", where Mulan sings to some annoying kids is passable. The reprise of "A Girl Worth Fighting For (Redux)" is barely worth paying attention to, but the song from the princesses, "(I Wanna Be) Like Other Girls", is tolerably bubbly. None of them really rise about book numbers, filling out the film, but they also don't grate on the nerves. Again, that's about all we can really expect from a film like this.
The fact that the movie got the voice cast back from the first film (sans Eddie Murphy) does help a lot. It makes the film feel like a proper sequel (or, at least, as much as the lower-grade animation of this direct-to-video fare can), and the actors do what they can to sell this threadbare material. If this had come out in theaters it would have been soundly trashed, and rightly so. This is a low-stakes, simple, obviously-plotted film. But for an hour-plus time-waster on the couch while kids sit entranced on the floor, there are worse ways to spend that time than Mulan II. it's not bad in any way shape or form but, as Disney well knew, it's nowhere near a masterpiece either.