This is a rather somber film, that takes its time—unlike so many animations today—to tell a strong story in a beautiful way. It’s the old, old gag of a girl passing herself off as a boy. This being China, it is to preserve the family honor by serving in the Army, defending against the Huns, who cross the Great Wall in the opening scenes. Mulan is not quite a tomboy, but isn’t very good at the subservient, voiceless demeanor demanded of an eligible bride. She wears her disabled father’s armor and manages to fool everyone for a long time, long enough to learn how to fight, and to be the brains of the outfit, eventually routing all but a small number of the Huns. Then she is discovered, and her captain despises her and she has to prove herself all over again.
It is a very feminist story, showing a strong woman and the sexist odds she is up against. Mulan is quite agile and strong—not quite ridiculously agile like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but quick on her feet and able to swing about like Tarzan. I think it’s significant that, though she is not the daughter of a king and therefore not a real princess, she had been included in the line of Disney Princesses anyway because she’s so popular, and I don’t think it’s just with Asian girls. She is really the physically and mentally strongest female main character I can think of in a Disney feature, and girls seem to like that … when they’re not dressing up as wimpy Snow White or Cinderella. (Once again, Disney folks, re-think Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She could be the daughter of the King of the Gypsies, couldn’t she? You never said she wasn’t, and there is such a person.)
The look of the film is captivating, hinting at those classical Chinese paper screens with a few brush strokes of black and red without being slavishly imitative of them. During one point in a musical number the characters actually do transform into moving pictograms and the effect is enchanting. CGI is advancing once more here; there is a scene with thousands of mounted Huns coming over a rise and charging down a snow-covered hill that would be easy today, but was stunning at the time.
The amusing sidekicks here (a cliché that still seems to work almost all the time) is a “lucky” cricket and a very small dragon named Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy. He’s not quite in the league of James Woods and Robin Williams, but he’s very good. Many of the other characters, most importantly Ming-Na as Mulan, are voiced by Chinese actors … or Japanese.
Cranks who hated it: I would have expected somebody to object to not having an all-Chinese cast, but I never heard about it.