In the rush to contrast the early-nineties Disney golden age (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King) with the current crop of underperformers (Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range) that have resulted in Disney’s foolhardy decision to jettison hand-drawn animation, some pretty decent films have been lost in the shuffle. Disney’s Mulan, for example, is a beautifully drawn and exciting little adventure movie from 1998 (when it was a decent-sized hit, too). It’s no kind of classic, but who says Disney Animation can’t put out something minor now and again?
In their own ways, the late-nineties Disney cartoons (which include the similarly mythical Hercules and Tarzan) take risks in stylization and subject matter. The semi-experiment here is to craft a story around a strong female protagonist who is not, on any level, a princess (even intelligent and bookish Belle in Beauty and the Beast is defined by a love story with a prince, handsome or not). The title character (voiced by Ming-Na (now sans the Wen)) masquerades as a man in order to take her aging father’s place in the Chinese army; it won’t spoil your enjoyment to know that she isn’t instantly killed and forgotten.
Nor does the movie break from formula in many other notable ways; there’s still a bland, princely love interest and a team of bland, enthusiastic animal sidekicks – Mulan’s guardian mini-dragon Mushu for one; her faithful steed for another; and her pet cricket for one too many. The action sequences, like a massive battleground avalanche, are so good that the patented Disney story beats – the protagonist’s declaration of uncertainty; accusations of deception and/or betrayal; a cheery finale – feel like filler, not backbone. What could be a touching, personal story buckles under the weight of Disney’s patented team writing policy – good for gag-based films, but maybe not for a warrior’s tale.
This is most apparent when the characters occasionally sing: The death knell for the automatic musicalization of Disney films is sounded via four awful, half-hearted songs that have no place in a grand adventure. Still, the music is mostly out of the picture by the halfway mark, and Mulan proceeds as a female-driven action movie – a relatively rare experience for kids and even their more seasoned moviegoing parents.
You can also credit Disney for getting to the Eddie Murphy Cartoon Sidekick well first – DreamWorks may have hit paydirt with his work as Donkey in the Shrek films, but Murphy practiced this routine in Mulan as the tiny Mushu. His comic riffs are more out of place here than in an out-and-out comedy like Shrek, but on its own, Murphy’s part is a pointless but amusing bit of comic relief.
So Mulan remains squarely in the realm of family entertainment, but it’s lush and effective as such (if a little more violent than usual). The animated set design of Chinese palaces and landscapes is eye-catching, and the villain Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) cuts a menacing figure. I’ll take this swordplay and fireworks over Cinderella any day.
The new DVD release includes a deleted song and scenes, plus the usual kid’s games and behind-the-scenes peeks.
Review by Jesse Hassenger © 2000 filmcritic.com