Without its fabulous animation, Mulan would add up to little more than a serviceable variant on the Disney drill: Wasp-waisted proto-feminist heroine – aided by a cute critter or teapot, a court jester played by a famous voice, and several faithful flunkies who morph into drag queens for song-and-dance backup – faces down big bully on behalf of father figure, then rides into sunset with pretty boy even though dating is the last thing on her independent mind. Based on an ancient folktale so popular in China that its heroine has a grave site, Mulan appears to have given Disney a mortal case of the marketing jitters about whether an exotic tale of long ago and far away will fly with American kids unless it's fortified with the usual trappings.
So much so that Roy Disney himself dreamed up the character of Mushu (voice of Eddie Murphy), a tiny, wisecracking dragon-ancestor of Mulan's family, to squire the damsel on her journey to self-actualization. Like Belle and Pocahontas and Jasmine before her, Mulan is a square peg in the round hole of her hidebound habitat. Having flunked a pre-bridal interview with the village matchmaker, the restive wench (read by Ming-Na Wen, understandably having more fun than she did as Wesley Snipes' bitter wife in the dreadful One Night Stand) is casting about for viable life goals when opportunity knocks in the form of an imperial war with the Huns. To save her handicapped father from conscription, Mulan chops off her black tresses and, flanked by Mushu and a brazen Jiminy clone named Cri-Kee, dudes up as a boy to join the imperial army. After a grueling basic training that's either a knockoff or a send-up of G.I. Jane, she wins the respect of her three stoogey comrades-in-arms and of Captain Shang (spoken by B.D. Wong, sung by Donny Osmond), who has Prince Charming written all over his overwrought pectorals. It remains only to outwit the top Hun (Miguel Ferrer), rescue the sweet old Emperor (Pat Morita) and become the toast of China – all of which Mulan accomplishes after being exposed as a girl, thus accomplishing selfhood on her own terms.
Mulan is gorgeous, its clean lines and soft palette of grays, pinks and purples drawn from traditional Chinese painting and from the stark simplicity of the landscape of rural China, and flaming into high color for moments of crisis. In a breathtaking buildup to a climactic battle scene, scores of Huns silently amass like black bats on the brow of a hill, ready to swoop down on Mulan and her imperial friends. (The experience is so real, one simply forgets it's animated.)
Yet despite her lovely, carved face and almond black eyes, Mulan, like all the characters in this movie, is a cookie-cutter American prototype, lazily ripped off from the Disney boilerplate that fashioned Pocahontas et al. Throwing in a few Asian-American actors in speaking parts won't make this movie Chinese. And though Murphy gives a brilliantly hyper reading of Mushu, his function in Mulan is identical to Robin Williams' in Aladdin – to soak up the attention of all the little boys who might turn up their noses at a girlie heroine.
It's not impossible that Mulan was made as a calculated sop to the culture czars of China, Disney's bulkiest potential overseas market. Certainly the movie will go over bigger in Beijing than Kundun. Except that the Chinese, who long ago dispensed with their emperors, will likely be more baffled than entertained by this Yankee raid on their favorite tale. For the sly genius of Disney is to render all stories American. And who would take to a story of restored imperial power more than Michael Eisner, the emperor who always strikes back?