Movies of 1998 Bracket Game: Mulan Vs. A Bug’s Life
1998 is right in the middle of an era in cinema that I have great affection for. The success of former video store employee Quentin Tarantino had been hugely influential and motivated a general expanded interest in independent film and in the value of both movie trivia and the expertise of your local hole-in-the-wall movie rental clerk. Many of the bigger studios had scrambled to put together projects and promote filmmakers who would help to bolster their street credibility and make them seem in tune with the times. While at moments this resulted in some movies that only had the markers associated with the sort of stuff they thought we wanted to see, but none of the genuine connection with the material that had made it interesting to begin with, I’d say the overall result was positive. Creative and idiosyncratic efforts were more likely to get the green light, and I consider that to be a good thing. At the same time, we were still getting a lot of very mainstream movies with pretty varied results, which served to remind us both of the value of earlier studio approaches and of the corporate malaise that independent films were in part a reaction against. It was a fine time to be a movie fan.
Today’s pairing features the two biggest animated films of the year, with the computer generated insects of A Bug’s Life and the mostly hand-drawn Chinese action musical Mulan.
Yesterday most of us got a chance to kvetch about the worst movies of 1998 in the comments section. While we agreed that there were probably worse movies than Armageddon that year, that didn’t mean we don’t think Deep Impact isn’t better….and we think Deep Impact is pretty mediocre. Either way, it will move on to face the winner of today’s animation matchup.
By 1998, Disney animation’s huge resurgence of the previous decade was starting to peter out just a bit. The big four ‘Renaissance’ movies, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King had been absolutely huge both at the box office and critically. Mulan was one of two projects offered to director Barry Cook, with the other being a Scottish story featuring a dragon character. Cook offhandedly suggested that the Chinese story should have a dragon, and voila! Eddie Murphy’s pocket-sized Mushu character became a thing and Cook was assigned a co-directorship of Mulan alongside Tony Bancroft. It was the first of three feature-length animated films to be fully produced in Florida in work spaces provided inside what is now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park. As Lebeau can personally attest, guests used to be able to watch artists working on sequences as a part of the back stage tour there. Disney made many attempts to create the film in a way that was as accurate to the Chinese culture as possible, sending artists and writers on a trip to China in 1994 to discover genuine images and styles for the movie. While they cast some of the characters with actors of Chinese descent, including Ming-Na Wen in the lead role of Fa Mulan, James Hong as Chi-Fu, and B.D. Wong as Captain Shang, several other roles were filled by actors of Japanese descent such as Pat Morita and George Takei and other characters were voiced by very Jewish-American performers such as June Foray and Harvey Fierstein.
While the mix of traditional animation with computer effects still expanding in Mulan had been very popular for the first half of the nineties, Pixar animation had made a sensation in 1995 with their first feature-length computer animation, Toy Story. A famous lunchtime meeting between director John Lasseter and several other Pixar creatives resulted in not just the idea for A Bug’s Life, but also Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc, with the movie originally titled “Bugs” based on the popular fable The Grasshopper and the Ants. In this version it was imagined that the grasshopper would not be turned away from the food collected by the ants, but would instead simply take the food through force. After the success of Toy Story, it appeared that voice actors were lining up around the block to fill the large cast, with Dave Foley (The Kids in the Hall, News Radio), Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (SNL, Seinfeld), Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, Glengarry Glen Ross), Denis Leary, Richard Kind, Phyllis Diller, David Hyde Pierce, Madeline Kahn, and Roddy MacDowell taking just a few of the roles available. The movie opened for the Thanksgiving weekend and ended up doing extremely well at the box office, eventually taking in more than $162 million and grabbing the number four spot for the year. It garnered generally favorable reviews and won multiple awards for family and animated entertainment.
So what will it be? Is it the time of your life with A Bug’s Life, or are you reflecting on Mulan? Vote here and tell us why you made your choice in the comments!