Movies

The Tasteless History of ‘Mulan’ and McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce Tie-In Album

This past weekend, “Incredibles 2” arrived in theaters 14 years after the original film, and with it came a tidal wave of merchandise and licensed tie-ins (do you have your branded paper towels yet?). Maybe the most important of these promotional activations was with McDonald’s, the fast food chain that Disney hadn’t been aligned with for more than a decade. For the first time since 2006, there would be Disney toys in everyone’s Happy Meal boxes.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Back in 1998, before the shocking rise in childhood obesity rates left Disney wondering if a class action lawsuit was just around the corner, there was a strategic alliance between Disney and McDonald’s that was truly staggering. This was the year that McDonald’s sponsored an entire land at the newly opened Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a union that would ultimately lead to the creation of the McRib (but that is an entirely different story). There was another Disney/McDonald’s team-up that would give rise to another coveted item: Szechuan Sauce.

Let’s back up for a moment: “Mulan” was the latest in a series of Disney animated features that pretty much everyone hoped would be a huge blockbuster in the Summer of 1998. This was released toward the end of the Disney Renaissance, a period for the studio that began in the late 1980s with movies like “The Great Mouse Detective” and “The Little Mermaid.” It would continue with hit after hit (“Aladdin!” “The Lion King!”) until the end of the 1990s (“Tarzan,” most would agree, was the conclusion of this period of time).

Accompanying each release were truly grandiose promotional stunts; “Pocahontas” got a world premiere in Central Park and “Hercules” brought the Main Street Electrical Parade through midtown Manhattan. And then, there were, of course, the tie-ins, and “Mulan” had a particularly aggressive campaign courtesy of McDonald’s.

Again, 1998 was the height of the Disney/McDonald’s partnership. Earlier in the year, they had sponsored that land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and, indeed, in addition to the Happy Meal toys, there were McDonald’s kiosks in many of the domestic theme parks where you could grab fries or a Big Mac on your walk to Space Mountain. (Seriously, these were glorious times.)

Looking back on the “Mulan” campaign though, well, things could have certainly played out differently.Watching television commercials from the period, all touting the magical szechuan sauce — seen as a promotional dipping sauce for the fast food chain’s chicken McNuggets — you can feel that something is off. There’s the commercial, for instance, where a small Caucasian girl greets her family with a polite bow, before making her family sit on the floor and, finally, using her martial arts skills to chop down the normally-sized table so that her family, now on the floor, can eat properly. (Yes, there is a traditional/stereotypical “oriental” gong.) Another ad had McDonald’s spokes-clown Ronald McDonald karate chopping the restaurant chain’s logo. And when you got your nuggets, the box said things like “Run, don’t wok …” and “McDonalds is Chinamite!” I was 15 at the time and even I remember thinking they were a little off.

According to Entertainment Weekly, an “email campaign” (ah, 1998) was started by a Chinese-American student at Cornell University. At the time, Disney claimed that they had screened the campaign for Asian-American employees and didn’t find anything offensive. McDonald’s said the same. But the damage had been done.

The campaign had been rolled out on June 17, 1998 (two days before the movie was released) and by July 2, everything — including the offensive McNuggets and the covered Szechuan sauce — was gone. In its place was a promotion for “Armageddon,” another Disney blockbuster for the summer of 1998. If you ordered a “super-sized” fries, you could win one of a million tickets to the movie.

End of story, right?

Wrong.

A 2017 episode of “Rick and Morty,” the ultra-hip [adult swim] animated series, heavily referenced the delicious sauce, with Rick traveling to a simulated version of 1998 just so he could get his hands on that sauce again. (The episode aired on April Fool’s Day.) In response, McDonald’s, hoping for some of that sweet, sweet social engagement (perhaps just as delicious as the sauce itself), released a limited batch of the sauce in the fall of 2017. Things … did not go as planned.

Overzealous fans of the show, unhappy with just how limited the limited batch really was, caused a scene at several locations and even staged a full-scale riot. Afterwards, they would sell the coveted sauce online for untold sums of money. In response, McDonald’s rolled out a more democratic stunt earlier this year. You can get a packet online — right now! — for less than $10.

While it wasn’t quite as bad, PR-wise, as those commercials that were — at the very least offensive and, at the very worst, all-out racist — the “Rick and Morty”-adjacent rollout last year was just as much a fiasco. While undeniably delectable, the Szechuan sauce is irrevocably linked to bad taste.

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