Directed by Barry Cook, Tony Bancroft. Starring Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.d. Wong, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Tondo, Gedde Watanabe, James Hong, Miguel Ferrer, Pat Morita, George Takei. (1998, G, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., June 19, 1998
Ink flows, graceful as a winding river, etching title credits onto a cinematic expanse of parchment. The credits fade, and out of the mist a great wall looms, perched severely, ominously on the mountain ridge, extending far, far into the horizon. So opens Mulan, as beautifully and austerely as a budding plum blossom framed against a forbidding sky. Disney's latest animated feature hearkens back to its heyday fare, a sweet and captivating tale that pits gentle, enduring goodness against dark, malevolent forces. Based on an ancient Chinese legend about a girl who masquerades as a soldier to replace her frail father in the war against invading Huns, the movie makes the most of its remarkable animation, an engrossing story, and a winning protagonist. Mulan is smart, brave, beautiful, and (it's about time!) not the least bit voluptuous. Her disguise as a boy is more natural to her than the whiteface, rouge, and restrictive costume she must don in her quest for a husband. When she fails to pass muster as a prospective bride, her disappointed father comforts her with the assurance that certain flowers merely bloom later than others. And bloom she does, not a fragile hothouse blossom in a cultivated garden, but a strong and hardy wildflower in a cold and dangerous wasteland. As lovely and evocative as the scenes of Mulan's girlhood are, the film's action sequences where she proves her mettle are a visual feast of truly great proportions. The wave of Mongol warriors cresting the snowy mountainside is a thrilling sight -- terrifying and mesmerizing and beautiful -- all perfectly reflecting the contrasts of darkness and light, of grace and power so intrinsic to Chinese art. Such loveliness makes the addition of the prerequisite anthropomorphic sidekick (in this case, a diminutive, jive-talking dragon named Mushu) a jarring, anachronistic addition to the mix. Mushu (Murphy) is of little help to Mulan, but he does have some funny lines and the kids will no doubt love him. Make no mistake though, this children's film is a work of art, replete with mood and history and images that convey a sense of place and time more deftly than any photo travelogue could. Once you've scaled the Great Wall in Mulan, you feel like you've breathed the chill air, felt the fog on your skin, shrunk a bit in the face of the sheer vastness of the land. You also have spent time with a wonderfully engaging heroine. This is 2,000-year-old Girl Power, and it packs a mighty but winsome wallop.