Picks and Pans Review: Mulan
After the lumbering Hunchback of Notre Dame and the puny Hercules, Disney's animation department is back in stirring good form with this tale, adapted from a Chinese legend dating back two millennia. When the Huns invade and the emperor raises an army, Mulan, a teenage girl whose lack of feminine arts is damaging her marriage potential, disguises herself as a boy and runs off to join the fight.
A teenage cross-dresser in the military? Yentl as a cartoon action hero? Mulan handles the girl's transformation with surprising tact, sophistication and taste. There's even a scene in which Mulan, skinny-dipping at night, eludes three other soldiers, all of them equally naked below the concealing blue veil of water. This being Disney, the focus here is not on what we would nowadays call gender issues but on Mulan's attempt to preserve the family's honor—she fights in place of her father, who is too ill to serve—and find her role in a world that doesn't understand her. Mulan the girl-soldier is not so different from Pinocchio the puppet-boy.
Even though the tale's emotional power has kept it relevant through the centuries, the Disney team unfortunately couldn't resist jazzing things up with jarring anachronistic touches. Eddie Murphy, talking up a storm and yelling out jokes, supplies the voice of a red, Chihuahua-size dragon who rides into battle with Mulan. But at least Murphy is funny, making Mushu the best of the comic sidekicks that have become a staple in these cartoons. And the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel are awful. "I'll Make a Man Out of You," a booming number sung by soldiers in training camp, is a parody of the Village People.
Still, Mulan succeeds. Much of the animation is excellent, from a battle in the snow (an avalanche sweeps down in great white clouds and buries legions of horses), to a parade before the imperial palace, to a procession of prospective brides throwing soft shadows as they glide down a street. And through it all, beating steady as a drum, is Mulan's heart, strong, brave and true. (G)
Bottom Line: This warrior is a winner