Disney's Latest Heroine Saves Its Reputation
(This review originally appeared in the June 18-24, 1998 Long Island Voice.)
Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels
Mulan, the story of a young woman who saves her country, is also the film that saves Disneys tarnished animation reputation.
Despite a renaissance in the late 80s to early 90s with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, the studio a mouse built stumbled with Pocahontas, fell on its face with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and nearly sprained something with Hercules. Mulan gets it back on its feet nicely by carefully avoiding the pitfalls of those films.
First, Mulan has a story that works. The title character is a young woman in feudal China at the time of the Hun invasion. The emperor decrees that each family must send one male member to the army, but Mulans father, a respected soldier injured in a previous war, has no sons to send. Rather than let her father go to a certain death, she steals his armor and pretends to be Ping, a teen eager to defend to his country. Mulan learns to fight and uses her ingenuity to think her way around a challenge during training. Her cleverness and courage save the day later when her small company faces the massive Hun army.
This leads to point number two: Disney has been running out of European fairy tales. Its mistake has been either adapting stories that just dont work as all-ages animation, like Hunchback, or stories that have to be manipulated too much to fit that audience, like Hercules and Pocahontas. Here, instead, they borrowed a legend from another culture that needed little adapting. While there are serious moments, such as villages being destroyed, its presented clearly yet discreetly. Not a single child in my screening seemed disturbed by the carefully handled violence.
Third, except for one sound effect as a set of orders is written, there are no anachronistic comments and thankfully, no internal references to the merchandising, like Hercules had. Disney failed to realize that those touches only worked in Aladdin because they came from a genie. Everywhere else, theyre just tacky.
Fourth, Mulan got the cultural background basically right from crickets being good luck, to the role of woman, to the Shinto belief in family guardian spirits and honoring ancestors. The details might be a bit off and whimsical, but it was much more accurate than its rewriting of Greek mythology in Hercules. The requisite cute animals/creatures were not overdone. Due to magic inherent in the tales, enchanted furniture in Beauty and the Beast and the companion animals in Aladdin worked. Gargoyles as friends in Hunchback didnt. Mulans horse Kahn is basically a faithful mount. While the cricket pushes the envelope a bit, at least it doesnt talk, but it doesnt have to with Eddie Murphy voicing the guardian spirit dragon Mushu and bringing some sassiness to the story without disrupting its tone.
The animation is gorgeous Disney usually gets that right done in a fluid, simply lined style that is evocative of Asian drawing and calligraphy. There are no breakout songs for the pop charts, but the songs serve their purpose.
Mulan also makes up for years of weak female characters. Its a perfect metaphor for the identity struggle of teenage girls. The young heroine is not comfortable with herself or her appearance she sings of wanting to truly seeing herself in her reflection and has little interest in being a quiet porcelain doll. Over the course of the film, she gains self-esteem until she is not only comfortable with herself, but accepted for who she is. Mulan is a character any woman can be proud to have her daughter emulate.
(A Walt Disney Pictures release. Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft.)
© 1998 Long Island Voice. Accompanying stills © 1998 Walt Disney.