‘Mulan’ turns 20: Director talks Donny Osmond and making a new type of Disney princess

Getting Donny Osmond for the singing voice of Capt. Li Shang, Mulan’s commander, was not especially difficult.

“I remember (him) being super excited to be in a Disney movie,” Bancroft wrote in an email interview. “It had been a dream of his since he was young.”

Osmond wasn’t the only one who wanted to be part of the Disney family; like a lot of kids, Bancroft fell in love with animation as a child.

“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,” he wrote. “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 I had to learn.”

Bancroft taught himself to draw by copying characters from comic books. A friendly artistic rivalry with his twin brother, Tom, helped him progress faster than he otherwise might have, and by the time he was in high school, Bancroft knew he wanted to make a living drawing 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.

When he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, he landed a job that would come to define his work in many ways. “My first job in the industry … was as a low-level intern with Disney, but I was on my way!” wrote Bancroft.

His low-level position grew by the year. “I worked on all of the Disney features through the 1990s such as ‘Rescuers Down Under,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Aladdin,’ and ‘The Lion King,’” Bancroft said.

After helping create the character Puumba for “The Lion King,” Bancroft scored the enviable gig as co-director for the 1998 feature animated film “Mulan,” which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

“The executives were looking for someone with experience as a character animator and at that point, I fit the bill!” he wrote.

He took responsibility for animation-related duties while co-director Barry Cook used his expertise in effects and painting. “We shared the heavy lifting of story and editorial,” Bancroft said. “We also were always together when recording all of the actors and in post-production as everything came together.”

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.

The joint duties associated with recording the actors proved emotional for Bancroft. He vividly recalls the first time he saw actress Lea Salonga recording a song in her role as the singing voice for “Mulan’s” title character.

“I remember (her) sounding like an angel,” he said of the actress who made her first splash at Disney as the voice of Jasmine in the 1992 film “Aladdin.” “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.”

As for Osmond, whose vocal contributions to the movie are nearly as recognizable as Salonga’s, Bancroft remembers the singer feeling not only excited, but also a bit puzzled. “He felt it odd that his opportunity would come as a vocal sound-alike for a Chinese man but he did a great job,” Bancroft said. “I can’t imagine ‘I’ll Make A Man Out of You’ without Donny Osmond.”

“Mulan” represented a career capstone for Bancroft, and his associations with actors such as Salonga and Osmond provided a treasure chest worth of memories. But when it comes to the lasting impact of the movie, Bancroft immediately zeroes in on the effect it had on his daughters.

Tony Bancroft Looks Back on Mulan, Donny Osmond

“The story was really ahead of its time in many ways,” he said. “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.”

That story tells of a Chinese girl named Mulan who, to save her father’s life, disguises herself as a man and joins the army to fight their enemies. “She is exuberant and a free spirit and wants to be herself in a world that says a woman is a servant and has little value,” Bancroft said.

“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,” he said.

Disney clearly agreed with Bancroft and is planning a live-action version of “Mulan” staring Chinese-American actress and singer Liu Yifei in the title role. While Bancroft believes animation provides a magical, fairy tale experience that cannot be matched in a live-action film, he has high hopes for both the production value and messaging potential of the new movie, which is scheduled to debut in March 2020.

“I do think audiences will be wowed by the visual effects and wonder of the new live action ‘Mulan,’” he wrote. “I am excited to see it myself!”

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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