It shocks me to say this out loud, but Mulan—the new Disney animated movie—is downright elegant ("elegant," admittedly, in the context of being a Disney animated movie, but elegant nonetheless!). Dark horsemen cresting a snow-covered mountainside; a festive papier-m⣨頤ragon head bobbing ominously behind an upright marching soldier; a villain drawing back an arrow to kill an innocent... but when the arrow is released, the screen cuts away to darkness, leaving only the deep thrum of the bowstring. Mulan still has those trademark comic sidekicks and uplifting moments, but they are free of the frantic desperation that made Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame so excruciating. Most of the film, moreover, flows to music by Jerry Goldsmith, who scored Patton, Chinatown, Alien, and L.A. Confidential. That alone is enough to give Mulan a tone and texture unlike any other Disney flick.
starring the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.D. Wong
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The story comes from a classic Chinese fairy tale: When barbaric Huns attack the borders of China, the emperor demands that one man from every household join the imperial army. Mulan, the misfit only child of her middle-class home, disguises herself as a man to take her lame father's place. Naturally, after much hardship, she succeeds and brings glory to her family name.
Buried in this straightforward plot lies a subtle, unforced discussion of gender roles. Early on, Mulan's mother and grandmother gussy her up in traditional feminine garb so she can make a good impression on the village matchmaker; later, when she has joined the army, she is constantly trying to act masculine by swaggering and talking about killing. Neither role comes naturally to her; being "female" and "male" are both a kind of dress-up.
Recent Chinese cinema clearly influenced the look and flavor of Mulan. The lush color spectrum wouldn't be out of place in one of Zhang Yimou's art films (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou), while the willingness to play fast and loose with cultural styles is completely in tune with Hong Kong's pop fare. When Mushu, a midget dragon sent by Mulan's ancestors to rescue the family honor, drops into black gospel vocal rhythms, it has nothing to do with China and everything to do with Eddie Murphy, who provides Mushu's voice (of course, Hercules had its Muses singing Motown, so it's not as if Disney ever cared about stylistic consistency . . . ); Hong Kong films are similarly hodgepodge, more concerned with the effect of the moment than uniformity. Mulan's rooftop climax may even be an homage to the spectacular final battle of Peking Opera Blues, a Hong Kong classic.
Mulan herself accomplishes the rare feat of being more interesting than the villain of the story, who almost always steals the show in Disney cartoons. She makes choices, fails at some things, succeeds at others, and at no time does she stand idly by, waiting for others to win the day. Belle from Beauty and the Beast had the trappings of intelligence (look, she reads books!), but her wit was never tested. Jasmine from Aladdin and Esmeralda from Hunchback were little more than trophies, their spunkiness mere window-dressing. Pocahontas was a symbol, with too much nobility ever to come to life.
More significantly, these characters didn't set their stories in motion, as Mulan does. When Mulan devastates the Hun army by starting an avalanche, she unquestionably saves the day; without her, the hunky captain would simply have been killed. This is only one among many decisive moments that make the substance of Mulan as subtly different as its tone and design from the Disney norm.
Peking Opera Blues