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Mulan: Disney's latest animated film shows cracks in a successfull movie formula

Fa Mulan, a young woman impersonating a man in order to fight in the Chinese army, flees the advancing Huns in Disney's new animated feature, Mulan.

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
staff reporter

Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. With the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Lea Salonga, Eddie Murphy, B.D. Wong, Donny Osmond, Miguel Ferrer.

Written by Rita Hsiao, Chris Sanders, Philip LaZebnik, Raymond Singer, and Eugene Bostwick-Singer, based on the story by Robert D. San Souci, inspired by the ancient Chinese folk ballad.

Disney's formula is still standing mightily. However, it is a colossus with the feet of clay, and the cracks, which started to show several years ago, are rapidly spreading. There's nothing wrong with the formula per se: role-model protagonist, musical numbers, funny sidekicks, romantic interest, despicable villain, exciting adventure - you know, the works. However, it has to be used carefully, without sacrificing the overall coherency; otherwise, the result will be like Mulan - a highly entertaining, yet somewhat schizophrenic experience.

I guess I should not complain too much, because I saw two films for the price of one. The first film is about a young chinese girl, Fa Mulan (speaking voice by Ming-Na Wen, singing voice by Lea Salonga), who dresses up as a man and joins the army, to save her old conscripted father. The country is in trouble, because the Huns are attacking, sweeping aside such obstacles as the Chinese army, the Great Wall, and the fact that the real Huns never attacked China (memo to Disney: not all Mongolian tribes are Huns). Mulan has to brave not only the invaders, the harshness of military training, but also the centuries-old gender stereotypes. Her adventures are viscerally exciting, and there's even some emotional weight behind Mulan's plight.

The second film has Eddie Murphy voicing Mushu, a small but highly obnoxious dragon, whose ostensible purpose is to be Mulan's guardian. His real purpose, of course, is making sure that all the kids in the audience would have something to laugh at. While Murphy is never outright annoying - he's just mildly distracting - and quite a few jokes actually work, the combination of a dramatic adventure and a silly comedy is really an ill-advised one. While the overall impression is not as jaw-droppingly shocking as the one I got from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (where a film which featured murder, torture, and sexual aggression coexisted with the one which featured singing gargoyles), it still makes a weird combination.

Too bad, because the time which was spent on Murphy's antics could have been otherwise spent on better things. The main story - a woman's war with prejudices with the Chinese-Mongolian war as a background - is full of epic qualities and rich possibilities. Some of them are realized, but once in a while the pacing feels way too rushed. This doesn't give the characters much chance to breathe, and the romantic subplot, which actually is quite organic and doesn't feel shoehorned, is severely underutilized.

However, what is there is spectacular. The visuals are marvelous - the grand scale (the Wall of China, the Emperor's Palace with thousands of lanterns, the blinding white snow of the foreboding mountain pass), as well as the fine details and excellent character design. Voice acting is top notch, but then again, it always is in Disney's animated features, and the musical score (Jerry Goldsmith) sounds both suitably ethnic and heroically stirring. On the other hand, the songs (from the Hercules team of composer Matthew Wilder and lyricist David Zippel) are utterly bland, and join the list of things Disney should consider either making relevant to the overall story, or avoiding completely. By the way, the pop-singles during the final credits should simply be banned as offensive to the ear.

Of course, it is very hard to achieve the artistic consistency when you have six screenwriters as well as thirteen extra people providing "additional story material" (whatever that means). Of course, with so many cooks working on the stir fry, the results are bound to be a mixed bag, just like this metaphor. Mulan is a highly enjoyable movie, with lots to offer to everyone; but I couldn't help but think of what it could have been if it didn't try to pander to each and every audience member. Then it might have been truly excellent.