Quite likely the first animated cross-dressing action musical, “Mulan” plays out as a rich dramatic tapestry lightly stained by some strained comedy, rigorous political correctness and perhaps more adherence to Disney formula than should have been the case in one of the studio’s most adventurous and serious animated features. About a tradition-bucking young woman in ancient China who disguises herself as a man to serve in the army, this is a female empowerment story par excellence, as well as a G-rated picture that may have strong appeal for many adults.
A rare Disney animated effort not based on well-known material or characters, it should generate strong response and business, but will nonetheless be closely watched commercially. The studio’s last couple of summer animated features having been seen as underachievers, and such femme-oriented adventures from other studios as “Anastasia” and “Quest for Camelot” have done just OK and mediocre business, respectively. Film’s performance will at least indicate how much of a future there is for female heroines in animation, and perhaps reflect on the viability of certain long-standing conventions in the form.
Historically, at least, “Mulan” reps a full turn of the circle from such Disney classics as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Sleeping Beauty,” in which passive heroines were rescued by blandly noble princes. Here, it’s the girl who does the rescuing, saving not only the prince but the emperor himself from oblivion, and this in a distant culture where women were expected to obey strictly prescribed rules.
Purportedly based on a Chinese legend that has many versions, but telling a story that exists in some form in many cultures, tale is a powerful one that is cogently and boldly set up by first-time directors Barry Cook, a 17-year vet of the studio, and Tony Bancroft, a character animator on several recent films. Just as the marauding Huns, led by the ruthless Shan-Yu, are invading the country and pushing over the Great Wall, Mulan is being prepared for presentation to a matchmaker who will determine her matrimonial fate. Young lady is maladroit at wifely traditions, however, and in a ballad, “Reflection,” muses on how she would like to be recognized for what she really is.
This wish would probably go forever unfulfilled, however, but for the march of events. To combat the Huns, one man from every family is required to enlist in the Imperial Army, and Mulan’s aging father, despite his physical infirmities, volunteers. When his daughter objects, the old man sternly warns her, “I know my place. It is time you learned yours.”
Unchastened, however, Mulan that night dresses herself as a man and prepares to head for camp. At this, the family ancestors are awakened, since they will need to protect the youngster through her trials, and the film’s tone abruptly shifts from intense drama to broad showbiz comedy. Suddenly, pic is overrun by bickering ghosts spitting out one-liners and creatures such as a cricket and, most important, a small dragon named Mushu who has a lot to prove to himself and to the world.
In an obvious attempt to approximate the comic impact Robin Williams made in “Aladdin,” Mushu is voiced by Eddie Murphy. But while individual lines might prove amusing, the overall effect of Mushu’s aggressively jivey commentary is jarring and, frankly, off-putting in this serious context; Mushu and Murphy really belong in a different movie.
Instead, the lizard hitches on for the ride, which lands Mulan among a motley crew of recruits commanded by a dashing young captain, Shang. Eventually, the farcically unruly men — and one woman — are whipped into shape as Shang vocalizes that “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” whereupon they face action sooner than expected in a mountain pass ambush by the Huns. Using great ingenuity, Mulan remarkably saves the day, but when she is unmasked in victory’s wake as a woman, her disguise is taken as unforgivable treachery and she is spared by Shang only because she has saved his life.
Just as the Emperor is presiding over celebrations at the Imperial Palace, the Huns manage to rise again, taking the leader hostage and challenging the ostracized Mulan to ever greater feats of bravery and physical prowess (her assist from some soldiers in comical drag is taking current fashion a bit too far for this story, however). When the flummoxed Shang stands dumbfounded by Mulan’s heroism and doesn’t know what to say to her, the Emperor points out, “A flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest flower of all,” prompting the soldier to pay a belated visit to Mulan’s happily reunited family.
From a design point of view, “Mulan” is constantly stimulating, sometimes even striking. Chinese backdrop, employed in a Disney animated picture for the first time, provides the impetus for bold and colorful visual strokes as well as for some delicate pictorialism in certain sequences. The invasion and battle scenes are done in incisive strokes that could prove a bit scary for the very young, even though casualties are not shown, and computer graphics have been used in numerous ways that are variously obvious and unnoticeable; most spectacular example is certainly that of thousands of Huns sweeping down a snowy mountain.
Character design work is appealing but of a more familiar nature. Mostly Asian actors have been used to give voice to the characters, and everyone has done a first-rate job in both dramatic characterizations and singing.
Musically, the strongest material is vet composer Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring of the numerous action and serious sequences, which brings the drama to life much as it would a live-action film. At a first listen, songs by Matthew Wilder, a rock composer and producer, and lyricist David Zippel, who worked on “Hercules,” are solid, if somewhat formulaic, save for the Asian inflections that recur throughout.
The strengths and weaknesses of “Mulan” help call into question some of the basic premises of Disney animated films at this newly evolved stage in their development. The central situation here is so intrinsically vital that it makes the standard comic and kid-friendly elements, notably the cutesy animals, seem incongruous, if not unnecessary. Are the would-be scary dragon, his cricket sidekick and the assorted ghosts essential to moppets’ acceptance of an animated Disney attraction such as this, even if the film would be better without them? Animals belong in some films, are the only characters in others, but are out of place in some, such as this and the historically rooted “Anastasia.”
There is also a feeling here of how every last plot turn, line and gesture has been calculated and weighed for its full dramatic, ideological and cultural impact; so well researched is the formula that nothing has been left to chance, so the film is far from anything that could be called surprising or spontaneous. Pic goes about halfway toward setting new boundaries for Disney’s, and the industry’s, animated features, but doesn’t go far enough.