Mulan (1998)

D: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
S: Voices of: Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, Eddie Murphy

Epic animated film based upon Chinese myths of the female warrior defying social conventions to fight for the honour of the Emperor and her family against foreign invaders. Though often spectacular and nicely balanced by a supporting comic performance by Eddie Murphy, this film suffers from some bland characterisations and excessive simplicity, even by the standards of animated features from this particular company.

Mulan herself is portrayed in positive terms as a strong and able warrior (after some initial capers which prove her less than effective in traditional feminine roles), but her eventual surrender to tradition and patriarchy is a confusing message in the context of Pocahontas-style political correctness through which it must inevitably be perceived. The other characters are even less intriguing, one-dimensional cyphers given little chance to develop beyond the purely functional gags and gimmicks which delineate their function in the narrative, including the less than terrifying villain voiced by Miguel Ferrer and the forgettable male hero voiced by B.D. Wong (with the singing voice of Donny Osmond).

The character design is drawn from some traditional Chinese depictions (with a heavy dose of Disney, of course), but recalls the somewhat chunky and stylised figures from Pocahontas rather than the detailed portraiture of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. They retain the broad aspect of the characters in Hercules without the zany humour which gave that film is particular style. The colour palette is gorgeous and the illustration is generally of the high standard which Disney has achieved in recent years. There is a strong musical score by Jerry Goldsmith and notably fewer songs than usual (none of which stand out).

Perhaps we have been spoiled by the Disney renaissance, and by the spin-off revival of the animated film in general, but though Mulan is by any accounts a well crafted and quite enjoyable film, it never proves itself to be special in any way which makes it worth noting above and beyond its recent predecessors.

The film is at its best in the large-scale action sequences, including the impressive charge of the Hun army down the side of a snowy mountain and the crowd scenes in the Forbidden City at the climax, both of which are clearly computer-assisted, but more varied in portraying movement than similar scenes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame or even Beauty and the Beast. Other visual highlights include the occasional martial arts sequences and the characterisation of a cricket who accompanies Mulan throughout the film, and in general the animation is smooth and impressive.

Given that the audience for the film is primarily assumed to be children, it probably won't be of great concern to most adults to learn of the shortcomings which ultimately make the film less than a classic. It works on the most basic terms and will provide sufficient moral entertainment for younger viewers. Kids have and will find it involving to watch and will have few slow stretches in which to become frustrated. But it was an over reliance on the lack of discernment of children in general which led to Disney's troubles in the 1970s and 80s, and they need to be careful to ensure that while all of their effort goes into technical prowess and increasingly complex draughtsmanship, they do not lose sight of the fact that in order for the medium to grow and change, it must draw upon both repetition of the formula and innovation on the level of story and character which keeps contemporaneous without being merely trendy. It also helps to retain an audience base which includes room for growing maturation, as adults still ultimately pay the admission and purchase the videos.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.