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Action Heroine for the Millennium

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 1998

  Movie Critic

In "Mulan," a girl disguises herself as a man and takes her ailing father's place in battle. (Disney)

Barry Cook
Ming Na Wen;
Eddie Murphy;
Gedde Watanabe;
B.D. Wong;
George Takei;
Pat Morita;
Harvey Fierstein;
Miguel Ferrer;
Donny Osmond
Running Time:
1 hour, 28 minutes
Bloodless combat with swords, sticks and arrows and circumstantial evidence of off-screen death
Some day her prince may come. But "Mulan's" kung-fu Cinderella isn't sitting around the fishpond playing hard to draw. Unlike her animated forerunners, Fa Mulan is a fairy tale feminist, and it is she who determines her fate in this intriguing, elegantly designed feature from Disney's ink pots.

Mulan, pluckily voiced by Ming-Na Wen ("The Joy Luck Club"), is a legendary girl warrior from ancient China who disguises herself as a boy and secretly takes her elderly father's place in the imperial army. The free-spirited teenager's derring-do has been the stuff of Chinese bedtime stories for 2,000 years, but as adapted here fits the studio formula like the glass slipper did the dainty foot of its true owner.

Hence the 4th-century heroine winds up with a pair of wacky animal sidekicks and a wisecracking granny right out of "The Beverly Hillbillies." And, while they're never espoused, Mulan gains an awareness of contemporary feminist ideals. Her motives, on the other hand, are not only more in keeping with the beloved legend but sure to register with boys as well as girls.

Although she has been reared to fulfill a womanly role in her rigidly structured society, Mulan has never been adept at pouring tea, making polite conversation or twirling a parasol provocatively. She prefers the company of her horse, Khan, to the mincing manners of her painted peers.

Nevertheless, it is her duty to marry well and bring honor to her family. To that end, she's primped, powdered and bundled off to the matchmaker in hopes of making an impression. Unfortunately, her mischievous cricket, Cri-kree, escapes and sets off a chain of events that all but doom lovely, almond-eyed Mulan to a life of spinsterhood.

Mulan's father (nobly voiced by Soon-Tek Oh), whose tender relationship with his daughter recalls that between Belle and her pere, tries to reassure her with the observation that the late blossom is often the most beautiful. Mulan can't be consoled, for as she explains in song, "If I were to truly be myself I would break my family's heart."

Enter hordes of Huns, whose threat to China's sovereignty gives Mulan the chance not only to discover her own strengths but to save her father's life. And if she escapes detection, she may yet bring honor to her family. Driven by filial love and loyalty, Mulan lops off her long hair, ties on her father's sword and sets off for boot camp.

In the meantime, her ancestors materialize above the family temple, do a couple of ghostly song and dance numbers and appoint a pint-size dragon, Mushu (raucously voiced by Eddie Murphy), to watch over Mulan during her perilous undertaking. Once a mighty temple guardian, Mushu sees the adventure as a chance to turn the girl into a war hero, thereby regaining his status with the ancestors.

Murphy is meant to match the comic impact of Robin Williams's genie in "Aladdin," and his dude of a dragon is certain to send kiddies into gales of giggles. It's just that Murphy's street-wise-crackery doesn't jibe with the distinctly Oriental flavor of the movie's pastel landscapes, its Asian vocal talent or the echoes of temple flutes in its score.

First-time directors Barry Cook, a Disney veteran of 17 years, and Tony Bancroft, the animator who created Pumbaa the warthog in "The Lion King," probably didn't have the clout to abandon the traditional cutesy formula. They approach the exotic material much like Americans seeking the safety of a McDonald's while touring in Peking.

"Mulan" may be exotic, but it's hardly a risky enterprise, what with its sentimental show tunes, wholesome morals and plucky teen heroine. Heroines are all pretty darn spunky of late . . . though Mulan may well be the only cross-dresser to play the lead in the Magic Kingdom.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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