In the 90’s, Walt Disney churned out hit after animated hit with movies like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” For some reason, Disney’s creativity suddenly dropped a notch when they started releasing movies like “Mulan.” Watch those two movies and there’s a missing element that makes “Mulan” less satisfying as a whole.
When released in 1991, “Beauty and the Beast” was nominated for Best Picture. Seven years later in 1998, “Mulan” didn’t capture the public’s imagination quite as much. When you compare the two pictures, there’s one glaring omission.
In “Beauty and the Beast,” everyone is striving to achieve a goal. Belle, the heroine, is a smart girl who wants to find the right man. Her father wants to protect her and get her married. Then there’s the Beast who needs to learn to be less arrogant. The Beast’s servants want the Beast to find love so they can transform back into their human forms. Gaston, the villain, wants to marry Belle despite being an arrogant idiot.
The big difference with “Beauty and the Beast” is that it’s not just a story about one person, but about several people who have similar, intertwined goals. Now look at “Mulan.”
In “Mulan,” Mulan has a goal to be herself. Her ally, a dragon, has a goal to become one of the family’s guardians again. Does anyone else have a strong goal that’s intertwined with the hero (Mulan) and her ally (the dragon)? Nope, and that’s where “Mulan” falls flat.
When you have a story where multiple characters are pursuing similar, intertwined goals, you have a rich story. When you only have your hero pursuing a goal and everyone else just exists for the sake of interacting with the hero, you have a weak story, such as “Mulan.”
In “Mulan,” Mulan befriends three warriors, yet we know nothing about what these warriors want. They effectively have no goal other than to serve the plot later in the story. Even when they do help Mulan, there’s no sense of satisfaction because we know nothing about them in the first place.
Think of “Star Wars” where Hans Solo rescues Luke at the last minute by coming back to help the rebel alliance. That one moment not only helps Luke but completes Hans Solo’s story as he learns to be more than just a mercenary. “Star Wars” is a richer story as a result.
“Mulan” is a weaker story because the only person pursuing any goal is Mulan and the dragon. Even the villain doesn’t have much of a goal beyond the vague idea of conquering China. The villain in “Mulan” is a one-dimension villain who doesn’t feel like a real human being. The villain in “Beauty and the Beast” wants to marry Belle, and that directly puts him in conflict with the Beast.
The villain in “Mulan” wants to conquer China. That doesn’t really threaten Mulan much, so the villain’s goal is much weaker in comparison, which weakens “Mulan” as a movie.
The lesson is that a great movie has characters who feel real with their own goals. A mediocre movie focuses solely on the hero where everyone else exists just to serve the plot.
If you want to make your screenplay better, make sure everyone has their own goals to pursue. This won’t guarantee that your story will be great, but it’s a step in the right direction to keep your screenplay from being mediocre.