directed by Tony
Bancroft & Barry Cook
(Miramax/Buena Vista, 1998)

Just how far the Disney studios have come since they released Snow White in 1937 is not hard to see.

For decades, their female protagonists -- Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty -- were mostly victims who counted on the strong hands of princes for their ultimate salvation. Now we have Mulan, a young woman who not only takes charge of her own life, but puts herself in harm's way to save a man -- her father -- and, ironically, ends up saving China's entire old-boy network.

Yet on re-examination there's as much old as there is new in Mulan, Disney's 1998 megahit.

There's a protagonist who struggles, much like Pocahontas, against the traditional values of her people. She's aided in her struggle by a horse that came straight out of Sleeping Beauty and a cast of funny sidekicks, some human, some not -- not unlike Snow White's dwarfs or Cinderella's mice.

There are the usual productions numbers -- some serious, some comic, some an odd combination of the two. Even Mulan's wisecracking Grandmother Fa (voiced by June Foray), sounds suspiciously like Pocahontas's Grandmother Willow -- though Fa is human, Willow was a tree.

All that makes Mulan less a breakthrough than a complex variation on a number of old Disney themes.

So the question becomes, does Mulan carve a place for itself in the pantheon of animated films, or does it merely take a number and get in line? The answer, like the film, is complicated.

What distinguishes Mulan most clearly from its predecessors is its look: it's a dark, shadowy film, reminiscent of the Batman and Gargoyles TV series. At the same time, the drawing is Zen-like, with simple lines and arcing forms. Even the swirling smoke in the battle scenes suggest Oriental rather than Occidental art.

Gone too is the old monolithic nemesis: Cinderella had only one stepmother and Snow White only one evil Queen. Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) must go up not only against tradition but a bumbling bureaucrat (Chi Fu), a young captain (B.D. Wong) who will have to issue a death warrant for her if he learns the truth and a galloping horde of head-butting Huns who have more in common with professional wrestling than with history.

And yet Mulan is saved by the oldest of Disney tricks, the wise-cracking sidekick. Robin Williams' genie put the magic in Aladdin; Nathan Lane's meerkat kept The Lion King from becoming a mere cat film. Mulan saves the emperor, but ultimately Eddie Murphy, as Mushu the Dragon, saves Mulan.

Without Murphy, Mulan would be a pretty bleak affair, brightened only occasionally by an inspired bit: Mulan practicing to act like a man before reporting to boot camp; three oddly built warriors dressing as concubines to distract the Huns.

It's up to Murphy to provide an entire Greek chorus of sage wisdom, delivered in true Murphy style: streetwise if somewhat foolish, with lots of attitude: "Dragon, not lizard," he says when Mulan takes him for the latter. "I don't do that tongue thing." It's enough to make you wish Murphy had been the sidekick instead of the main event in Dr. Dolittle.

Mulan had no trouble finding its audience, and it will surely find a place in the pantheon of animated films -- not at the very top, but far from the bottom. In it, the Disney animators have clearly demonstrated their ability to deliver a much more proactive heroine. Now if they could only learn to draw a more interesting one.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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