According to an ancient Chinese legend, a young girl goes off to war in her ailing father’s stead and winds up saving the Emperor’s army, bringing honor to her family. Sound far-fetched? Well, do you remember your French history and a 16-year-old named Joan of Arc? Someone at Disney must have thought this concept would be perfect for ’90s movie goers. And he – or she – was right! MULAN, Disney’s 36th full-length animated feature, is a family treasure.
Fearing her honorable, yet elderly, father will be killed fulfilling his service as a soldier, our plucky heroine, Mulan, steals his commission papers, disguises herself as a boy, and rides off on the family steed to fight the invading Huns.
Once ensconced in Asian boot camp, she first frustrates, then bonds with fellow soldiers and forms a secret crush on her commanding officer. Mulan’s fierce determination and her quick thinking help save the day, but that only begins the story. It’s not until her true identity is discovered that her strength of character is truly put to the test. She’s a well-conceived personality that little girls will look up to, while little boys will be entranced by the action and the humor.
It’s difficult assessing which is the cardinal ingredient of any successful animated film. The cinema is a collaborative art form. Nowhere is that more evident than in the animation genre. Voice characterizations, drawings, concept, music, art design, etc., all must blend harmoniously to make a final product that entertains both little ones and the guardians who brought them. As with classics such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, all of the above elements prove formidable here as well. Mulan’s voices both amuse and mesmerize. The lead is spoken by Ming-Na Wen (The Joy Luck Club), with Lea Salonga (Aladdin, Miss Saigon) doing her musical chores. B. D. Wong (Seven Years in Tibet) is Shang, captain of the troops, with Donny Osmond furnishing his voice for the songs. Also in the vocal ensemble: Miguel Ferrer as bad guy Shan-Yu, and Harvey Fierstein as the brutish Yao – now there was creative casting. This lively musical comedy adventure also boasts the acting talents of James Hong, Miriam Margolyes, Pat Morita, James Shigeta, June Foray, and the legendary Marni Nixon (who supplied voice-overs for nearly every actress in Hollywood who ever stepped into a recording studio). And last and most effective is Eddie Murphy as Mushu, the diminutive ancestral guardian – a lizard-sized dragon with the heart of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff.” Murphy’s timing and tone prove that in spite of misfires such as Vampire in Brooklyn and The Distinguished Gentleman, he’s a very funny man and a gifted screen presence, even in cartoon disguise. Then there is the film’s animation. Certainly on a par with Disney’s finest efforts, Mulan contains the rich, simplistic and poetic tradition of Sleeping Beauty. While using color and texture to highlight emotional experiences in the same way the composer uses music, the skilled artists also take full advantage of today’s computer- generated imagery. One scene has the mongol hordes descending upon our heroes by the thousands – a most impressive sight. Primarily assembled at the Disney/MGM studios in Orlando, nearly 700 artists, animators and technicians contributed to the final production, maintaining China’s cultural and artistic influences. The immortal Jerry Goldsmith provides a classy score, with moving and literate songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. Perhaps not as memorable as Mermaid or Beauty, but each song is pleasing while furthering the story, with two pieces, “Reflection” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” ranking structurally alongside any movie number written in this past decade. Lately, other studios have tried to establish themselves in the family animation market with varying degrees of success, but, like KFC, Disney has secret ingredients. Certainly one of them is the sheer heartfelt emotion that radiates from its finest productions. Never condescending, never phlegmatic, the simple messages of good vs. evil, respect for family and living things, and the hope of an idyllic ever-after continues to enthrall audiences, young and old.