When assessing an animated musical feature from Walt Disney, it's best to: Forget historical accuracy. Forget cultural integrity. Throw your notions of authenticity and consistency out the window and have a grand old time.
In the case of "Mulan," this means forgetting whatever you know about ancient China, accepting anachronisms, anomalies and inconsistencies galore and surrendering to that special, if wildly anomalous, world known as Disney.
Children especially should have no problem living in that world for an hour or so; indeed, they will be captivated by it. And "Mulan" has enough humor and visual sophistication to keep their adult companions not only awake but entertained.
"Mulan" is based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese legend about Fa Mulan, a young woman of independent spirit who is resisting her family's efforts to marry her off. When an invading army of Huns, led by their Chinese collaborator, Shan-Yu, threatens China's imperial city, every family in China is asked to send a man to battle. Watching as her aging, limping father prepares for a journey he will surely not survive, Mulan resolves to disguise herself as a man and fight for the Fa family.
One of the film's best scenes transpires early on, when Mulan, whose voices are provided by actress Ming-Na Wen and the singer Lea Salonga, contemplates her identity. In the family cemetery, surrounded by her own image mirrored in the gravestones, Mulan sings movingly of the struggle between who she is inside and what her family expects of her.
Soon after this meditative moment, Mulan is joined by the ancestors, who are alarmed at her desire to take on a son's responsibility. But instead of continuing the serious mood, this gaggle of relatives are not the forbidding figures of myth and filial sacrifice, but wisecracking versions of yentas, Grant Wood's "American Gothic" couple and other anachronisms. Thus does "Mulan" establish its character, where genuinely affecting moments are tempered by scenes of comedy.
The most glaring non-sequitur in the film has to be Mushu, a tiny dragon on an incense burner who comes to life in order to keep an eye on Mulan for the ancestors. Not only does this little monster (given voice by Eddie Murphy) speak in an unlikely African-American patois in what is supposed to be ancient China, but his loopily drawn character is out of place against a backdrop that draws beautifully on the Chinese artistic traditions of calligraphy and silk painting.
The effect of Murphy alternating between the personae of a Baptist preacher and a streetwise tough is admittedly jarring at first. But Mushu quickly endears himself to Mulan -- becoming a valued coach and sidekick -- and to the audience as well. His constant patter ("You're the man sort of!") may be out of place, but it is funny nonetheless.
Even funnier are the friends Mulan makes in boot camp -- led by a soldier who looks and speaks like a refugee from a Martin Scorsese film (his gravelly voice is provided by Harvey Fierstein) -- who never figure out that their gutsy and able brother-in-arms is actually one righteous sister.
"Mulan," with songs written by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, is seasoned by just the right number of glorious production numbers, just as it balances personal storytelling with sweeping scenes of battle, a spectacular avalanche and grand pageantry.
Although the fight scenes may be too intense for wee ones, the message of "Mulan" -- which seems wrought of "The Art of War" and "The Beauty Myth" -- could not be more positive for youngsters, who learn the values of loyalty, courage and the importance of being true to oneself; indeed the themes of identity and self-acceptance will surely have equal resonance for grown-ups.
More than the story and songs, however, audiences of all ages will be dazzled by the visual grandeur and imagination of "Mulan," which uses some familiar techniques from non-animated films to thrilling effect.
As wonderful as this is to watch, though, "Mulan" ultimately inspires a pang of ambivalence. Admittedly, it's a kick to see animated features so smoothly approximating the precision, depth and scope of their live-action counterparts. What's ironic -- and alarming -- is that the digital effects that make such sophistication possible have rendered live-action films more like cartoons.
Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft
Released by Walt Disney Pictures
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 6/19/98