Andy Klein reviews Disney's latest masterpiece and finds some nice changes in the new Mulan.
Having exhausted the canon of classic European fairy tales and children's books that provided the basic story material for five decades of animated features, the filmmakers at Disney have, in recent years, turned to the Middle East (Aladdin), colonial America (Pocahontas), and Africa (The Lion King). (They have also turned to the world of adult literature, leading to their ambitious, but misbegotten, version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)
An Asian Classic
Now--and it's about time--they've looked to the Far East, where there is a body of fable at least as rich and well-recorded as in Europe. The new Mulan cleaves relatively faithfully to the bare bones of the oft-told Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a young woman who is supposed to have taken her ailing father's place in the Emperor's army during a fierce invasion. Disney has changed her family name from Hua to Fa--which is no great sacrilege, since even the historical records of the real Mulan can't seem to agree on her name or even the century in which she lived. In Disney's version, China is threatened when an army of Huns, led by Shan-Yu (voice of Miguel Ferrer), breach the Great Wall. The Emperor (Pat Morita) demands that one man from each family in his kingdom join the fight. Elderly, infirm Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh), the only male in the Fa family, prepares to do his duty. To protect him, his doting daughter, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), cuts her hair and goes off in drag in his place. There is nothing new about cross-dressing comedy--even in family films--and much of the humor in Mulan derives from the heroine's attempts to understand and imitate male characteristics. (Think Tootsie in reverse.) Thanks to her cleverness, she becomes the best of all the soldiers--not surprisingly, given what louts most of the genuine males are. Still, when her deception is uncovered, she is drummed out of the corps.
Of course, further crises require that she save the day once again.
Romance Isn't the Answer
No previous Disney feature has been so centrally concerned with gender roles and only Beauty and the Beast came within shooting distance of Mulan's modern take on the subject. Like Belle, Mulan is smart and plucky...and a complete outcast. Even more than Belle, she has to take charge of her fate. And, way more than Belle, she finds her eventual fulfillment independent of a romantic resolution.
This is still a Disney film and thus, it upholds most of the traditional values that have marked the studio's animated feature output for 60 years. However, the secondary nature of the romantic subplot really represents a change. Mulan isn't waiting for her prince to someday come; when he does arrive, having known her primarily as a man, and having learned to admire her for her deeper qualities, the romance is muted and subtle. While Belle was an independent type from the start, the new film shows Mulan discovering along the way that she doesn't have to accept her preordained position. Our introduction to the character shows her nervously preparing to impress the town's imperious matchmaker; only by finding a suitable husband can she satisfy her family's honor. When she bungles the interview, it is implied that she has no further options. Curiously, these scenes, while amusing, are the weakest part of the movie. While they may be thematically important, they are so tangential to the rest of the plot that they delay the film from getting down to business.
Taking From the Culture
Not surprisingly, the animators have drawn their visual inspiration from Chinese and Japanese sources. The characters' simple lines and the clean look of the backgrounds resemble classic Asian painting. Plus, the filmmakers haven't "Westernized" the characters' features. The film should draw none of the complaints that greeted Aladdin. If the film does draw fire for cultural insensitivity, it's likeliest to be for its chief comic supporting character. Mulan's three army buddies (voiced by Gedde Watanabe, Jerry S. Tondo, and--!--Harvey Fierstein) may be cut straight from the standard Disney pattern, but her main advisor, a diminutive dragon named Mushu, is more than a little out of time and place, sounding like a cross between George "The Kingfish" Stevens and a Baptist preacher. Admittedly, a jive-talking dragon in sixth-century China is pretty irresistibly funny and Eddie Murphy does the most with the material he's given. ("So, Miss Man's decided to take her little drag show on the road," he pouts, after Mulan decamps for the army.)
That said, the material is nowhere near as good as what Robin Williams and James Woods respectively delivered in Aladdin and Hercules. Mulan will not take its place as one of the all-time funniest Disney features. (During the last decade, it's the Musker/Clements unit that has consistently turned out the studio's most hilarious features.) Despite its simplicity, or possibly on account of it, the animation is often beautiful, if rarely eye-opening. The CGI sequences, in particular the big battle between the Huns and the Chinese, are the most memorable scenes. Mulan could have been the perfect opportunity for Disney to incorporate some of the techniques and styles that distinguish Japanese anime, but there is little, if any, such influence on display.
Mulan's CGI sequences, in particular the big battle between the Huns and the Chinese, are the most memorable scenes. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Mulan. Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. Written by Rita Hsiao, Christopher Sanders, Philip LaZebnik, Raymond Singer, and Eugenia Bostwick-Singer. Score by Jerry Goldsmith; songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. Produced by Pam Coats. With the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Lea Salonga, Eddie Murphy, B.D. Wong, Donny Osmond, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Tondo, Gedde Watanabe, Matthew Wilder, James Hong, Miguel Ferrer, Soon-Tek Oh, Freda Foh Shen, Pat Morita, June Foray, Marni Nixon, George Takei, Miriam Margolyes, James Shigeta, and Frank Welker.
Andy Klein is a film critic for the New Times newspaper chain. He is head of the animation committee for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA).