|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 02 February 1999|
"Thrilling" isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind while watching animated battle sequences, but there are a couple of moments in ‘Mulan’ that make your skin prickle. At its best, the feature-length animated Disney musical approaches the martial visual scope of, say, ‘Braveheart.’ At its worst, ‘Mulan’ slips into cartoon convention - but even then, it shows some inventiveness.
‘Mulan’ is an adaptation of an age-old Chinese folk-tale about a young girl, Mulan (speaking voice Ming-Na Wen, singing voice Lea Salonga), who saves her father’s life by taking his place in the Chinese Army. The Huns are invading China and the Emperor decrees that each family must send at least one male into the military. Mulan’s father is old and physically lame, but he’s the only man in the household. Without her parents’ knowledge, Mulan cuts her hair, "borrows" her father’s sword and heads off to the nearest military encampment to report for duty. The ghosts of her ancestors send a protector: the tiny dragon Mushu (voice of Eddie Murphy), who failed miserably in his last stint as a guardian (the spirit of his previous charge carries his head alongside his body).
For a musical aimed squarely - though not exclusively - at children, ‘Mulan’ has an impressive ability to get serious when the story warrants it. Directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft and their team of animators and writers are able to convey devastation with stark images of burned villages, without actually putting anything in the frames that is liable to cause younger viewers to freak out. The Chapter 23 sequence of the Hun Army sweeping down over a snowy mountainside is breathtaking, owing at least part of its effect to the "two-dimensional animation" technique. The multitude of charging figures move independently, with a fluidity that suggests the sequences has been rotoscoped. (Rotoscoping is a process in which live-action frames are drawn over to produce animation.) However it was achieved, the shot makes your eyes widen. Elsewhere, the colors and lines appear bolder, cleaner and more streamlined than in previous Disney animation, with bright reds and subdued white-gray hues prominent in the costumes and landscapes.
The animated characterizations are rendered with imaginative skill. The animators clearly have a good time making distinctions between how Mulan moves in her own persona and how she moves as "Ping," her male alter ego. Actress Wen seems to be having equal fun growling out Ping’s lines two octaves below her normal range. Murphy as Mushu both giveth and taketh away. The jokes, tailored to his delivery, are very funny, but sometimes puncture the mood. Fortunately, these are small riffs that don’t mar the overall picture. The songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel aren’t indelible, but they’re still good musical theatre calibre and serve to move the story along. The standout number is arguably Chapter 17’s hearty "I’ll Make a Man Out of You" -- sung by Donny Osmond, of all people (he’s the singing voice of B.D. Wong’s heroic male lead).
The ‘Mulan’ DVD has an unusual set-up. While it is now common for disks to provide a choice of wide-screen or full-screen, here these are menu set-up options, rather than separate sides of the disk. Extras include an exuberant music video revision of ‘Mulan’s’ closing number "True To Your Heart," with the group 98 Degrees and Stevie Wonder flirting with a pretty girl during a Chinese parade, and standard ballad music video with Christina Aguilera doing "Reflections" from the soundtrack.
For all its innovations in theme and style - this is the first American-made big-budget animated feature with all-Asian protagonists - ‘Mulan’ is unmistakably a Disney production. If you don’t like the genre in the first place, it won’t change your mind, but if you appreciate this art form, ‘Mulan’ is both an admirable spectacle and solid entertainment.