88 minutes | Rated: G
Opened: Friday, June 19, 1998
Directed by Barry Cook & Tony Bancroft
Voices of Ming-Na Wen (Lea Salonga singing), B.D. Wong (Donny Osmond singing), Eddie Murphy, Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Tondo, Dedde Watanabe, James Hong, Pat Morita, Soon-Tek Oh & George Takei
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 25%|
LETTERBOX: COULDN'T HURT
If you're in it for the animation and you can find a wide screen version, the art is worth it. But if you're just renting/buying for the kids to watch, it won't make a difference to them.
Forgettable songs no hinderance to Disney's marvelous new style in 'Mulan'
I've docked "Mulan" half a star for not having a single memorable, or even toe-tapping, tune.
I realize this will seem like a blessing to some parents, who are no doubt beaming right now at the thought of driving home from a Disney flick in relative silence.
But this is, after all, a musical, and the way song writer Matthew Wilder struggles in vain to blend Broadway show tunes with traditional Chinese instrumentation leaves a lot to be desired.
However, "Mulan" more than makes up for its musical shortcomings with a revised recipe for the shopworn Disney cartoon formula and a whole new visual style, full of soft pen strokes and watercolor palates.
Tapping ancient Chinese legend for its story, "Mulan" is the studio's first animated feature with a truly independent heroine -- one whose ultimate goal is not marriage to some dashing prince.
Mulan (voiced by actress Ming-Na Wen, from "The Joy Luck Club" and TV's "The Single Guy") is a big-time tomboy who, when China is invaded by the Huns, steals her crippled father's marching orders and takes his place on the front disguised as a boy.
Take that, Cinderella.
This is a girl who holds her own against burly men in training camp and becomes a hero(ine) in a spectacularly animated battle against thousands of charging Huns on horseback.
With a pair rookie directors at the helm -- Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft -- "Mulan" takes a fresh approach to the seemingly cast-in-stone Disney blueprint. Gone, for example, are the slow-on-the-uptake male lead and the lavish production number featuring synchronized dancing by inanimate objects.
Instead, this picture focuses on Mulan's pride and independence as she grows from a family embarrassment (in a hilarious early slapstick scene she accidentally sets fire to the local matchmaker) into a cunning warrior.
She is a girl who wants nothing more than to bring her family honor, but she seems incapable of doing so in a culturally acceptable manner.
"Mulan" takes its art and story cues directly from Chinese mythology and successfully blends them with the practiced elements Disney knows will make an animated hit.
Example: When they realize she's run off to war, Mulan's family prays to her ancestors to watch over the girl, and a coalition of dead relatives send a dragon spirit to keep her safe. Of course, under Disney's hand the ancestors are a comedic, bickering bunch and the dragon, Mushu, is a nervous, smart-mouthed little lizard with the voice of Eddie Murphy.
Mushu is a brilliant scene-stealer -- the best wise-cracking sidekick since Iago the parrot in "Aladdin" -- and serves as a perfect example of how "Mulan" strikes a balance between honor and comedy, between Chinese myth and Disney tradition.
After a fairly predicable boot camp sequence, complete with a rag-tag army of cliched characters and a training montage set to a particularly grating song ("Be A Man," sung, ironically, by super-wimp Donny Osmond), Mulan proves herself a valiant soldier in a snow-bound battle with the Huns.
It is her ingenuity that saves her small band from defeat when she fires their last cannon into a snow-packed mountainside causing a sensational avalanche that buries their foes.
But soon thereafter Mulan's true sex is discovered, and she is abandon by her comrades, who march on to the emperor's palace as heroes.
Of course, the Huns aren't defeated just yet and our heroine has to save the capital and the emperor almost single-handedly.
"Mulan" is a proud step forward for the stalled Disney animation house. Not only is the visual style reinvigorated and the story a vast improvement on such middling fare as "hunch" and "Hercules," but the characters have genuine depth and the comedy much more fun.
Mulan is the most three-dimensional Disney lead in a decade, and the other characters rise to the same level. Murphy kills as Mushu (be prepared for a plush toy invasion). Captain Shang, her army superior voiced by B.D. Wong, is the first Disney stud since the Beast to have any semblance of personality. And the giant, muscular, hawk-eyed Hun leader is a wonderfully juicy baddie, especially with the booming voice of Miguel Ferrer.
Even without good music, "Mulan" is definitely in the upper echelon of Disney's animated revival, perhaps just behind "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."