Tony Bancroft Looks Back on Mulan, Donny Osmond

I can’t imagine “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” without Donny Osmond.

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Those stories about Elvis and the Book of Mormon aren’t exactly true. But the hype surrounding Donny Osmond and Mulan is real. In this interview, director Tony Bancroft looks back on creating the Disney feature film and recalls working with Donny Osmond and Lea Salonga.

Who is Tony Bancroft?

I’ve been in the animation industry for 30 years now. It all began when I watched Disney’s Great Mouse Detective and I swore that one day I would make characters come to life like what I saw on the screen. I was spellbound by the idea that mere pencil drawings could make me feel sad or happy for the character. It was some kind of magic that I had to learn.

And after I attended California Institute of the Arts, I got my first job in the industry. It was as a low level intern with Disney but I was on my way! I worked on all of the Disney features through the 1990’s such as Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

It was after I helped create the character Pumbaa in Lion King that I was tapped to co-direct Disney’s Mulan. The executives where looking for someone with experience as a character animator and at that point, I fit the bill!

Donny Osmond I remember being super excited to be in a Disney movie.

What role did art play in your life as a teenager and when did you realize you could turn your skills into a full-time job?

Drawing was a part of my life much earlier than my teen years. In fact, I was three when I first started drawing! My twin, brother, Tom and I were always reading comic books and copying the characters. We were competitive about our drawings, which is what made us good. It wasn’t until high school that both my brother and I decided we had to make a career of drawing our cartoons.

Co-directors Tony Bancroft (left) and Barry Cook (middle) meet with Mushu animator, Tom Bancroft (right) to “issue” him a new scene. The animation review room was located at Disney’s Orlando Florida Animation Studio within the Disney /MGM Studios Theme Park. Circa 1997. Photo provided by Tony Bancroft.

Tell us about Toonacious Family Entertainment and why the portrayal of faith in entertainment is important to you.

It was after working at Disney for 12 years that I felt like I should do more with the talents and abilities that God had given me and I joined with two friends to start Toonacious Family Entertainment. We felt like their needed to be more quality in the animation of Bible stories and such.

The Christian market was a ghetto of lack luster animation and we felt strongly that we could make a difference. We made videos in the Faith-based market for seven years before shuttering the company. It was a time of great growth and learning for me.

What kinds of family values does Mulan feature?

The story of Mulan is based on a 2000-year-old Chinese folktale about a daughter that would sacrifice herself for her father and go off to war in his place. It’s all about the love a daughter has for her father.

What is Mulan about?

It’s about a girl in ancient China who is not like the normal girls of her day. She us exuberant and a free-spirit and wants to be allowed to be herself in a world that says a woman is a servant and has little value. Through her selfless actions to save her father’s life she disguises herself as a man to go and fight in the war. It’s along the way that she saves the Emperor and brings honor to her family. But most of all, she changes how all of China sees a woman.

Disney’s Mulan co-directors Barry Cook (left) and Tony Bancroft (right) stand surrounded by storyboards from the movie and maquettes of the characters. Circa 1998. Photo provided by Tony Bancroft.

What is the difference between directing an animated film and a live action film?

We do everything a live action director does but with a larger crew over a longer time and at 24 frames a second!

How did you and co-director Barry Cook divide up your duties on Mulan?

Barry came from the effects department and used to be a painter while I came from clean-up and then animation. So, we split off the film based on departments and our skill sets. Barry was in charge of the layout, background and effect departments while I was in charge of CG animation, 2d animation and clean-up departments.

The directors of “Mulan” meet with all of their heads of departments in editorial to discuss that week’s production dailies. This meeting was called the “Sweatbox” because it was in a small room with many people giving their opinions on the shots for the movie. Circa 1997. Photo provided by Tony Bancroft.

We shared the heavy lifting of story and editorial. We also were always together when recording all of the actors and in post production as everything came together.

What do you remember about working with Lea Salonga and Donny Osmond?

Both were wonderful to work with and brought so much to the film and their parts.

Lea Salonga

Lea Salonga I remember sounding like an angel. In the recording sessions she would sing and it was just the most beautiful sound. When she sang Mulan’s “Reflection” song for the first time, I cried.

Donny Osmond

Donny Osmond I remember being super excited to be in a Disney movie. It had been a dream of his since he was young. He felt it odd that his opportunity would come as a vocal sound alike for a Chinese man but he did a great job.

I can’t imagine “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” without Donny Osmond.

In what ways do animated features provide a better experience than live-action?

I feel like animation, especially traditional animation such as the original Mulan, has a special and magical quality to the fans that experienced it. We were able to make a fairy tale world probably easier and more fully than could be done in live action.

I do think audiences will be wowed by the visual effects and wonder of the new live action Mulan. I am excited to see it myself!

Why do you think Mulan continues to resonate so strongly with viewers?

The story was really ahead of its time in many ways. It seems to resonate more today than when we made it in 1998 in light of female empowerment and the #MeToo generation. I think Mulan is the original strong female heroine.

Production Coordinator Lisa Ratan pins up inspirational artwork around the studio to inspire and motivate the animators on Disney’s “Mulan.” Circa 1996. Photo provided by Tony Bancroft.

What are you most proud about from your time on Mulan?

Having three daughters of my own, I am most proud of making a film with a new type of Disney princess that has inspired my girls’ generation to be strong females. Plus, I got to work with the best artists in the world while doing it.

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Further reading

Donny Osmond Mulan resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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