BH Interview: 'Mulan' Director, Animator Embrace Faith, Honor with Disney Neo-Classic
Tom Bancroft says he couldn’t have served as supervising animator on Disney’s Mulan without a little help from above.
“There was a lot of pressure on me,” says Bancroft about helping create the 1998 animated film, available this week on Blu-ray as part of a package including its 2004 Direct-to-Video sequel, Mulan II. “It was a Herculean task … I could lose that job very quickly had I not performed well.”
“What I discovered early on is I needed to do this with God. I couldn't do it on my own,” he tells Big Hollywood. ”If I prayed before every scene that really made a difference … humility before God.”
Bancroft also had help from a familiar face—Mulan’s director was his twin brother, Tony Bancroft. The two had worked together before on Disney projects but typically did so from a distance of many miles. Together, they told the story of a fiery Chinese girl (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) who pretends to be a man in order to join army, aided by her dragon Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy).
Mulan departed from traditional Disney animation, embracing both Chinese aesthetics and a “less is more” approach.
“We were constantly pulling details out of characters and backgrounds … with more color and less lines,” Tom Bancroft says.
Tony Bancroft brought a similar sense of apprehension to the project. The then-27-year-old became the youngest director in Disney animation history. He says completing a small but key sequence, in which Mulan rides off into the sunset wearing her new armor, helped steady his nerves.
The creative ensemble considered making the moment into a musical number or adding dialogue to the sequence. Instead, they used “scratch music” and abstract cuts to bring it to life.
“All of a sudden, yeah, we can do this,” he says. “Let’s make the bolder choices … it set the tone.”
Tony Bancroft says incorporating his family's sense of faith into a major Disney film proved a "delicate balance."
"I'm a Christian that's working for a big corporate company … they're making entertainment as a property to create revenue," Tony Bancroft says. "As believers and artists we try to put a little bit of ourselves in everything we do," he says.
Today, the brothers can revisit Mulan as a film to be enjoyed by the whole family, one showing a special bond between a father and his daughter, with pride. It's a long way from the squabbling siblings who once fought over the available crayons, Tom Bancroft says.
"Now, both of us can look back and say, 'thank you' to each other. We wouldn't have come nearly as far without each other," Tom Bancroft says.