There's good news and bad news about MULAN. The positive is
that Disney has found a happy medium between the heavy-handedness
of POCAHONTAS and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and the
childishness of HERCULES. On the other hand, the studio is pulling
out all the stops on plot cliches and cheap laughs, several steps down
from the days of THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. But
MULAN is a step in the right direction and Disney's best animated
feature since THE LION KING.
After giving Native Americans a turn in POCAHONTAS, Disney
has decided to turn a movie over to the Asians. MULAN is set in feudal
China and features the ever-popular Heroine Who Marches To A
Different Drum And Wants To Do More With Her Life Than Get
Married. That's what we find out when young Mulan (voice of Ming-
Na Wen) screws up her appointment with the matchmaker by letting a
rogue cricket splash coffee all over her. Cartoons...
Meanwhile, word comes from the emporer that one man from
every family must join the army and help fight the Huns. Since
Mulan's a girl, that means her decrepit old father must go. She pleads
with the soldiers to have mercy on dear old Dad, but that kind of
groveling and desperation brings shame on her family. That's Chinese
culture for you... So imagine how embarrassed the family is the next
day when they find Mulan has stolen her father's uniform and sword
and run off to join the army in his place. The movie in a nutshell is
about the stuggles of being a woman in the army. It should have been
called G.I. CHANG.
Mulan calls on her ancestors for help. They decide to
summon the large stone dragon in the backyard to protect her, but a
mini dragon named Mushu screws it up. Voiced by Eddie Murphy,
Mushu continues the tradition of cute talking animal sidekicks who do
more slapstick harm than good for their human charges. Murphy's
performance is a direct descendent of Robin Williams in ALADDIN --
lots of wisecracks and ad-libs and even an introductory song about
how much fun they're going to have. You ain't never had a friend like
Speaking of songs, MULAN doesn't have too many of them,
which is a plus with a story like this. Disney songs about war probably
wouldn't go over too well ("Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to war I go..."),
and the ones they do have aren't memorable. The best of the bunch,
sad to say, is "Be a Man," the requisite Basic Training Montage song.
Yes, even in medieval China, they had to run through that web of car
tires before they were ready for battle. Sung by Donnie Osmond (a bad
sign if ever there was one), "Be a Man" accompanies footage of
Mulan's platoon going from screw-ups to heroes. It makes me wonder,
has there ever been a musical montage in a movie that's ended badly? I
only wish real-life problems could be solved in two minutes with a
For the curious, Mulan does pass for a man in the army
despite looking like a girl. All she does to transform herself is cut her
hair to a sexy shoulder-length, talk macho and slap guys on the butt,
as was male custom a thousand years ago in China. The deception
fools everyone but the audience, who thinks she might be able to pass
for a 12-year-old boy, at best. But she does manage to strike the
biggest blows to the Hun army, led by a big, evil-eyed Attilla-looking
monster. As a villain, the head of the Huns is menacing, evil and
entirely forgettable. I saw the movie yesterday and I don't remember
the man's name.
Otherwise, MULAN is a good movie. The animation of the
characters themselves isn't as rich as it could and should be, but there
are some amazing battlefield shots. Eddie Murphy pulls off some good
one-liners, as do other star voices like Harvey Fierstein and Pat
Morita, the quintessential Asian movie star. Hell, George "Mr. Sulu"
Takei does a voice in MULAN. You get the sense Disney said to
themselves, "Alright, let's get out there and find us some Chinese
Americans in Hollywood. Who can you think of?" "Well, there's Mr.
Myagi..." "Good." "And Mr. Sulu." "Perfect. We've got ourselves a
movie now." Soon Disney really _will_ be able to paint with all the
colors of the wind.
Copyright © 1998 Andrew Hicks