My favorite animated movie, the only Disney film that has ever brought tears to my eyes, isn't, unfortunately, the sort of film that sells look-alike Barbie dolls or cuddly stuffed souvenirs. It's the least-marketed Disney film of the modern era -- one of very few not to spawn a made-for-video sequel or Saturday morning cartoon. As a result, this film has sunk into obscurity more quickly than its more heavily-marketed peers. This is a real shame, because the lush visuals, elegant soundtrack and, above all, the story set is far superior to most studio fare.
Mulan, the daughter of a military hero now crippled from old wounds, has been told all her life that a woman's honor depends on her role as a dutiful, modest daughter and wife. But on the day of her disastrous visit to the local matchmaker, who declares that she will never make a respectable bride, Mulan's family receives a summons from the Emperor to help fight the Huns. Stealing her father's armor, she travels to boot camp disguised as a man, accompanied by an (un)lucky cricket and a disgraced dragon guardian named Mushu. There, amidst orders to "be a man" and fellows who dream about "a girl worth fighting for," she discovers her own strength and intelligence.
Mulan's commander Shang has a lot to live up to as well, being the son of the general. When their unprepared battalion is forced to take on the Huns, Mulan's scheming makes heroes of them all but, in the aftermath, she inadvertently gives away her secret. After Shang and the others ride off to glory before the Emperor, she makes a fateful discovery and must figure out how to make herself seen and heard -- as a woman -- before the Huns destroy China.
After a somewhat slow beginning, enlivened by the slapstick comedy of Mulan's meeting with the matchmaker, the film becomes a dazzling action-adventure that even Donny Osmond's singing can't drag down. The corniness of having soldiers burst into song is offset by witty, fast paced scenes of unfit bums trying to become lean, mean fighting machines. A battle in the Himalayas offers breathtaking vistas as well as a gripping battle that may be too intense for the young audiences Disney usually targets. The ending maneuvers between witty costume ploys and hair-raising chases, culminating in a fight on a rooftop amidst paper lanterns and decorative streamers.
Mulan has fewer songs than a typical Disney film, which works to its advantage. In "Reflection," the title character wonders why her image in a pond doesn't look like the person she wants to be, a sentiment that would sound hopelessly corny spoken aloud yet seems sweetly appropriate accompanied by watercolor-type images of Chinese spring flowers. "A Girl Worth Fighting For" pokes fun at the expectations of the buffoons drafted into the army. "Be A Man," the anthem to masculine strength and honor, gets flipped on its head when the soldiers must dress as concubines to infiltrate the palace ("You must be swift as a coursing river...mysterious as the dark side of the moon").
After sitting through The Little Mermaid, in which Ariel wants to transform her body so she can win the prince, and Beauty and the Beast, in which it's suggested that all an abusive man really needs is the love of a good woman to tame him, the power of Mulan really moves me. It's not what she accomplishes disguised as a man so much as what she achieves as a woman in a world where women are supposed to be beautiful, silent and still. In the end, she uses specifically feminine accessories like a scarf and a fan to defeat a hulking enemy who calls her "little girl." As in most Disney films, the hero ends up falling for her, but not because of any wiles on her part; it takes a kick from the Emperor for Shang to understand that you don't meet a girl like Mulan every dynasty, but once he catches on, he realizes (like Avigdor in Yentl) that the qualities that make her behavior scandalous are precisely the things he admires about her.
Moreover, Mulan achieves everything on her own, without depending on mice who can design clothes or gargoyles who can rearrange precipices. Mushu, a walking disaster voiced by the hilarious Eddie Murphy, destroys Shang's battalion's store of armaments, and the cricket accidentally sabotages Mulan's meeting with the matchmaker. Ultimately they do become her partners in altering the status quo...but even that is an improvement over sidekicks in many Disney films who happily accept subservient roles and put up with being treated as inferior beings even when they demonstrate skills greater than those of the heroes. Mushu, who takes the place of the great family guardian dragon after a calamitous accident, provides Mulan with self-confidence and companionship, but he's no fairy godmother.
Striking animation inspired by Chinese brush paintings draw subtle parallels between Mulan and "the flower that blooms in adversity" to which she is compared, first by her father, then the Emperor. Don't look for similar depth of characterization in the villains. Head Hun Shan-Yu makes war because he enjoys it, and his men kill entire families. Similarly, the Emperor is a fairly one-dimensional kindly old ruler; we're supposed to accept his unquestioned authority because his forces keep China safe from those nasty Huns.
Mulan is far more complex -- the most complex of the Disney heroines; she has personal flaws, like outspokenness and hubris, which could not only cost her life but the honor and future of her family, given the restraints of her culture. Yet despite Mulan's rebellion against gender constraints, traditional Chinese views of honor and the eternal life of ancestors are treated with great respect -- much better than Native American culture in Pocahontas and Arab culture in Aladdin. This is a great film to watch with children, particularly girls in need of role models, but adults will find much to enjoy as well in this finest of Disney films.