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'Mulan': You Go Girl!

By Michael O'Sullivan
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
Gorgeously animated and stirringly told, Disney's "Mulan" is a timeless story that will delight kids and divert adults with its sweeping scope, emotional intimacy and screwball humor. And it may do for the sword what "Cinderella" did for the glass slipper-create a symbol of female transformation-except in this case one that has less to do with physical appearance than personal accomplishment.

Based on the 2,000-year-old Chinese legend of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the army and save her homeland from an enemy incursion, "Mulan" is a brazen departure from the traditional girl-centric cartoon fare about women whose chief heroic accomplishments involve falling in love. Unlike "Anastasia," "The Little Mermaid," "Pocahontas," "Beauty and the Beast," "Snow White" and a host of antecedents, "Mulan" features a heroine whose strength, discipline, courage and self-sacrifice-instead of her beauty-win the honor of her family and country. (Okay, they also snare her a boyfriend, but what do you want? Rome wasn't built in a day.)

As she readies for her interview with the matchmaker (Miriam Margolyes), gawky, graceless teen Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) frets that she will not make a good enough impression to entice a suitable mate. Sure enough, when her lucky cricket decides to take a bath in the middle of the ritual tea ceremony, bedlam ensues, jeopardizing her chances at matrimony.

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It's hard to believe, but soon more pressing problems arise. The Hun army, led by the hulking villain Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) has breached the Great Wall. Effective immediately, one male from each family must be conscripted into the imperial army to fight off the marauders.

In order to save her infirm father (Soon-tek Oh) from military service, Mulan lops off her long hair and steals away to the soldiers' encampment in the middle of the night. Masquerading as the young man "Ping," she quickly proves herself to be a persistent and clever fighter whose brains and heroism save the life of her regiment and her hunky commanding officer, Shang (B.D. Wong). Nevertheless, once her gender is inadvertently revealed, she is discharged in disgrace, which only forces her to prove her mettle in even more spectacular fashion, but this time as a girl.

Throughout Mulan's adventure, she is chaperoned by an economy-size dragon named Mushu (Eddie Murphy). Resembling an orange gecko with a Fu Manchu mustache, Mushu is a motor-mouthed adviser and one-man peanut gallery (aź la "Aladdin's" genie) and provides many of the film's funniest lines. However, Murphy's contemporary humor and jive delivery may take a bit of getting used to in the historically meticulous context of ancient China, and one bit where he steps into a Pentecostal minister shtick is almost too jarring.

Despite that one false note, "Mulan" hangs together remarkably well. Even the five songs (sung by Lea Salonga and Donny Osmond) are surprisingly effective in advancing the plot and characterization. Stylistically inspired by the delicate composition and empty space of traditional Chinese silk paintings, the film's original look is like no other American animation. One particular scene, created with computer graphics, of the Hun army on horseback charging over snowy mountains, will absolutely take your breath away. The use of color is particularly effective, as much of the film is drawn in subtle pastels, with hot colors reserved for the most dramatic encounters. Of special note is the careful animation of such inanimate but highly mobile entities as smoke and flags.

More to the point, though, "Mulan" is a rip-snorting saga of heroism beyond stereotype. It has all the epic scale of "Lawrence of Arabia," combined with the emotional virtuosity of "Bambi."

It is that rarest of cartoons, a fantasy that may actually make you believe in the unbelievable.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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