One of my favorite Disney movies is out in a glorious new Blu-Ray/DVD release this week, Mulan and its sequel, Mulan II.
“Mulan” is a gorgeously hand-animated film based on a traditional Chinese folktale about a girl who dresses as a boy to enlist in the army and serves with skill and courage. It has one of Disney’s most tuneful scores and characters who are funny, smart, and endearing. It has an exceptionally engaging and heartwarming plot. I especially love it when the guys have to dress as women for a stealth maneuver, a very satisfying turnabout. It has a very modern but very touching romance, featuring a female heroine who is as strong and brave as her love interest. Eddie Murphy as the dragon Mushu is one of the all-time great sidekicks. And it has simply spectacular setting with visuals inspired by Chinese works of art and geography.
And one of my favorite Disney World experiences is the tour of the animation studio led by Mushu himself, who explains what went into creating him. It is astonishing to compare the version we know so well with some of the early sketches. So, it was a special thrill to interview one of the “actors with pencils,” Tom Bancroft, the animator responsible for Mushu, who appears in that exhibit. He talked to me about some of the early thoughts about the character (Richard Dreyfuss??) and about how one of Disney’s least successful movies inspired him to become an animator.
How did you become involved with “Mulan?”
I was in the Florida studio since it opened. Mulan was our first feature film to create by ourselves in Florida. Before that we had done pieces of other feature films, but California was the hub because we were such a small studio. But we had grown and “Mulan” was our first “all right, we’re going to do it on our own” movie. When they started doing the development for it, they offered me the supervising animator position for Mushu, but this was a good year before we went into production. The scripts were being rewritten constantly. Mushu was still very much in development. They didn’t have a voice selected. We were still looking at people like Joe Pesci and Richard Dreyfuss. So that whole first year was designing him, but designing him kind of generically. What are the aspects of an Asian or Chinese dragon, looking at old artworks. We were still trying to figure out his personality. A lot of his posing and expressions came later, once we knew that Eddie Murphy was the voice.
So he recorded the voice before you did the animation?
Yes, the actor always goes first. We get an audiotape and for whatever scene I’m sitting down to do that day or that week — it’s slow, usually a scene a week, I listen to the line over and over and over again and just try to figure out, “How would Mushu say this?” Sometimes it’s “How would Eddie Murphy say this?” and sometimes its me acting it out in front of a mirror. A third of the way into the movie, it really becomes “How would Mushu do it” and that’s when you’ve really got it.
Listening to Eddie Murphy’s voice was a huge influence. Even before we got his dialogue, I did my research, watching “Trading Places” and his old Saturday Night Live sketches to get his facial expressions, what he does with his hands. I wanted to really try to get that in there. He does a lot of the work himself just in the way he delivers a line. You listen to the audio and it’s already funny. Robin Williams is the same way. Job one is not to lose the humor, to keep it as funny as it was when I heard it. And two, if I can make it even funnier, with a visual, then I really won the day. A lot of time that’s just trying to find an expression or a little piece of action that just fit the moment. That’s my goal.
The irony is that the one I watched that made me say, “I want to become an animator” was not very good. It was “The Black Cauldron.” It’s the movie that Disney doesn’t confess that they made. But it was in theaters when I was the right age, 15 or 16. I loved cartooning and was doing comic strips for my school paper, and I loved animation from afar. But I went to that movie, even as a teenager, because I thought it was cool and it hit me for the first time as the credits rolled — people worked on this. There are a lot of artists behind this movie. This was before we had DVDs with all the behind the scenes features. So it hit me on that movie and I said, “That would be fun to do.”
Is there a classic Disney movie you wish you could have worked on?
Oh, there are many! “Lady and the Tramp,” for one. It’s just such a perfect movie. “Pinocchio” would be up there, too, and “Dumbo,” and “101 Dalmatians.” But the one I really wish I could have worked on was “The Little Mermaid,” because I just missed it. I was an intern then and it was all around me, and I saw the rough pencil tests, heard the music, watched the animators. But I was training, taking Goofy tests and learning the Mickey Mouse walk cycle. To this day, it kills me that I didn’t work on it because I was there and watched it being made.
What are you working on now?
I’m freelance now. Right now I’m working for Christian Broadcasting Network, the lead character designer on a series called “Superbook.”
What can we see on the Mulan Blu-Ray that we didn’t see before?
Everything is crisper and more vivid. What you’ll see on Blu-Ray is even better than what we saw doing the final color mix. It’s even sharper than that. We can see movies even better than what we saw at the theater. And this is a great movie to see with real sharp color. You can see the paint strokes in the background. And I think traditional animation looks even better on Blu-Ray than the digital films.