Mulan (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

My concept of a "family film" is a movie that can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages: undiscriminating young children, teenagers with short attention spans, and adults with somewhat more refined standards. Unfortunately, too often Hollywood equates a "family film" with something aimed at the under-10 crowd. While Disney's live-action pictures have often fallen victim to this approach, the corporation's animated features have remained largely exempt (although it's possible to argue about how widespread Hercules' appeal is). Mulan, Disney's 36th animated movie, continues this trend. Arguably the most mature of the eight "new wave" (post- 1988, beginning with The Little Mermaid) films, Mulan effortlessly blends serious, comic, and cute elements into a whole that should entertain the majority of movie-goers, regardless of race, gender, or age.

Over the past few years, the Disney animated films have been in a state of constant quality erosion. This slippage has left the door open for other production companies' challengers, such as Fox's Anastasia, which applied the Disney formula with greater success than was evident in the Mouse's recent entries. Mulan not only reverses this unfortunate tendency, but re-affirms Disney as Hollywood's premiere animation factory. Mulan is better than either Anastasia or the disappointing The Quest for Camelot, and represents the most impressive animated offering since The Lion King. Adults will appreciate the depth of characterization while kids will love Mulan's sidekick, a colorful dragon named Mushu. Everyone will be entertained the fast-moving plot and rich animation.

The setting for this latest adventure is feudal China. An army of Huns under the command of the ruthless Shan-Yu (voice of Miguel Ferrer), has invaded the country, spreading death and disaster far and wide. The Chinese Emperor (Pat Morita) commands that one able-bodied male from every family must serve in an emergency army. Meanwhile, in a remote village, an independent-minded young woman named Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) has been rejected by a local matchmaker on the grounds that she is too willful. "You will never bring your family honor," decrees the matchmaker, causing Mulan to begin a period of soul-searching. When the Emperor's decree arrives, Mulan cuts her hair, dresses like a man, and enters the army in her father's place. With the help of her inept mythical guardian, the tiny dragon Mushu (Eddie Murphy), she seeks to win the confidence of her captain, Li Shang (B.D. Wong), and the acceptance of her fellow peasant-turned-warriors, while keeping her sex concealed from everyone.

Mulan is the first Disney animated film to deal with war and death on a large scale. The subject is not glossed over - the movie features several poignant sequences showing the devastation in the aftermath of a battle, including hundreds of lifeless bodies lying in the snow. Oddly, because there's nothing exploitative or gruesome about these images, they're more likely to affect older viewers, who will better understand the implications, than younger ones, for whom death is often a nebulous concept. In no way can it be said that Mulan is glorifying war.

The main character is cut from a familiar cloth. Although she looks different from Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, Mulan is very much the same type of individual: a woman with a strong, independent streak who is unwilling to bend to the customs of her culture, which decree that the role of the female is to be ornamental. The film isn't very subtle in reinforcing the idea of equality between the sexes, but the script contains a few amusing lines in this vein that will fly high over the heads of younger viewers.

As all Disney movies must, Mulan features a pair of new sidekicks. One, the second best- known cartoon cricket in the history of motion pictures, doesn't have a voice. The other, Mushu, never shuts up. It's clear that, in his vocal characterization of the dragon, Eddie Murphy is trying to top (or at least equal) Robin Williams' genie from Aladdin. Amazingly, he comes close. With his high- energy, often hilarious delivery (I'd bet money there was more than a little improvisation involved), Murphy flies away with his scenes. Mushu is the primary reason kids will love Mulan, and he's not so fundamentally juvenile that adults won't get a few chuckles out of him, as well.

If there's a disappointment in Mulan, it's the villain. Shan-Yu is not going to place high in the Disney Bad Guys Hall of Fame. The problem isn't that he's not nasty, because, with his scowling features, glaring eyes, and Darth Vader-like mannerisms, he's one of the most vicious men ever to appear in a Disney animated feature. Rather, it's his lack of screen time. Shan-Yu isn't around long enough for audiences to truly hate him. The final showdown is anti-climactic because he seems more like an afterthought than a major player.

Unsurprisingly, the animation is top-notch. The film has a unique look for an animated motion picture, using many more unusual camera angles than have previously been attempted in this kind of effort. There are the typically spectacular sequences: the opening shot of the Great Wall of China, scenes of a charging army, and the sight of a village in blazing ruins. In addition, the artists conquered an unusual challenge - to change the appearance of a cartoon character so that she looks like a male but is still obviously the same (female) person.

Mulan doesn't rely upon occasional double entendres to earn its acceptance with adults. Some of the dialogue is specifically aimed at an older audience. There's not so much that children will become confused or bored, but there's enough for Mom and Dad not to feel like they're being ignored or talked down to. It's also worth noting that Mulan is surprisingly light on songs, featuring only four or five (depending on how you count). Written by the team of Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, these are an improvement over what we were subject to in Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules.

After several years of less-than-stellar entries, Disney has rebounded with Mulan, which once again raises the bar for animated quality. Now, if only the production company would apply the same effort to their live-action features. Then I might not cringe at the thought of reviewing any non-animated offering from the Magic Kingdom.

Mulan (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 1998-06-19
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1