It took long enough, but Disney has finally come up with an animated heroine who’s a good role model and a funky, arresting personality at the same time. The title character of Mulan (Walt Disney) is a rosy-lipped, almond-eyed young beauty in imperial China who, despite her winsomely impulsive nature (or, rather, because of it), can’t conform to the dainty etiquette by which she’s supposed to live. Taking a lesson at the local matchmaker’s, Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) strains to fit in—she’s a tigress trying to be a lotus flower. She knows how to spot an opportunity, though. When China gets invaded by Huns, the emperor decrees that one man from each family shall serve in the defending army. But Mulan’s father, the noble Fa Zhou, is old, with a bad leg; for him, war means certain death. Desperate to save him, Mulan trims her hair, steals his armor, and rides into the night disguised as a young man, ready to join the troops in his place.
Cross-dressing has worn out its novelty as a comic device, but it turns out to be just the thing to spark a wholesome family entertainment. In her male-warrior guise (hair pulled back, lowered voice, medieval combat fatigues—even her skin seems darker), Mulan, now called Ping, is a cartoon playing a cartoon, hiding her identity while letting loose her feisty fighting spirit. The film hits a rambunctious peak in its basic-training sequence, where Mulan, attempting to fit in with her goofball fellow recruits and please the hunky drill captain, becomes a kind of dynastic-drag G.I. Jane. The film’s musical numbers were composed by Matthew Wilder, who had a hit in 1983 with his lovely, syncopated bubblegum ditty “Break My Stride,” and the song featured in this episode, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (sung by Donny Osmond!), has a comparable infectious punch. Unfortunately, it’s the only song in the movie that escapes Disneyfied blandness.
Far more than Beauty and the Beast or the stolidly virtuous Pocahontas, Mulan showcases a girl who gets to use her wits. As the Huns attack, she grabs a cannon, fires at a snowy mountain, and causes a strategic avalanche—a visually bold moment that’s also a testament to the power of mind over brawn. If Mulan finally falls a notch short of Disney’s best, that’s because the heroine’s empowerment remains, in essence, an emotionally isolated quest. For comic relief, Mulan teams up with a scraggly runt dragon named Mushu, voiced in ’70s-jive-pimp style by Eddie Murphy, who tries to jolt the movie with the same motormouth exuberance that Robin Williams brought to Aladdin. Murphy gives an irresistible performance, but you wish he had jazzier lines. Vividly animated, with a bursting palette that evokes both the wintry grandeur and decorative splendor of ancient China, Mulan is artful and satisfying in a slightly remote way. It would be nice if the next Disney cartoon, whether about a girl or a guy, had the adventurousness to avoid role models altogether. B+