Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook

Written by Robert D. San Souci, Rita Hsiao, Chris Sanders, Philip LaZebnik, Raymond Singer, and Eugene Bostwick-Singer

With the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.D. Wong, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Tondo, Gedde Watanabe, James Hong, and Miguel Ferrer.

By Matt Roth

Under Michael Eisner, Disney has become much more adventurous in choosing the source material for its animated features. Who’d have thought that Victor Hugo’s sprawling epic The Hunchback of Notre Dame could be transformed into the story of a misunderstood teen, or that the Hercules legend could be purged of any reference to adultery, or that the tale of Pocahontas, involving a 27-year-old British captain and a 12-year-old Algonquin girl, could be the basis for a love story? Mulan, Disney’s retelling of the popular Chinese folktale, may seem its gutsiest choice yet, but on closer examination it’s obviously less a matter of guts than careful calculation. The film is the most self-assured and by all indications the most successful Disney ‘toon in years; not only does it resolve artistic and marketing dilemmas the media giant has been wrestling with, but it represents a step forward in, and a reflection on, Disney’s ongoing effort to conquer the world.

First and foremost Mulan caters to its American audience; like Disney’s megahit The Lion King it courts a significant ethnic demographic. Native Americans, the French–neither have the financial clout of Asian-Americans, who are generally sanguine about the Disneyfication of their heritage. (For Disney’s next feature, my money is on Pancho Villa, or maybe Don Quixote, though the man of La Mancha would have to become a teen in search of himself.)

But Mulan’s success probably owes less to its ethnic marketing or its abundant kickboxing than to a real artistic achievement: its ingenious synthesis of the Disney girl movie and the Disney boy movie. In the girl movie a restless heroine strays from her father’s domain in search of adventure and ends up with a husband. In the boy movie a misfit discovers through ultraviolent rites of passage that he’s a born leader. Recent attempts to push the envelope have yielded strange results: Pocahontas ends with nuptial interruptus, as the Indian maiden gazes after a departing John Smith (the Native American longing for the European’s return!). In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo becomes a man when he realizes that he doesn’t deserve Esmeralda, that he’ll always be a sexual exile.

Mulan doesn’t mess with the formulas; it simply fuses them. When the Huns breach the Great Wall, the emperor (Pat Morita) decrees that one man from every household will fight the invaders. Fa Zhou, an elderly soldier and nobleman, accepts his commission; unlike some of his neighbors, he has no son to serve in his place, only a daughter, Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), whose frank high spirits make her unsuitable for marriage. To save her father from a sure death Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army. With the help of a lucky cricket, her boot-camp buddies, and a street-smart dragon (Eddie Murphy), she defeats the Huns, saves the emperor, and escapes being put to death for her charade. She survives self-esteem-boosting violence and in the process lands a suitor in the form of her hunky platoon leader, Captain Shang.

If the denouement seems a tad homoerotic–Captain Shang, after all, is mainly impressed with Mulan as a courageous soldier–that’s no accident. Disney has a substantial audience of parents to entertain and has begun spicing up its films with wink-wink adult humor. In Hercules–which contained rape jokes, fairly explicit sexual seduction, and a general fear of the feminine–the results were distasteful, but there’s something about cross-dressing comedy that appeals to both five-year-olds and PhDs. Mulan’s transvestism adds a dimension of farce to an otherwise macho boot-camp sequence (if “farce” is strong enough to describe the voice of Donny Osmond singing “I’ll Make a Man out of You”). Her army buddies (the toughest of whom is voiced by Harvey Fierstein) insinuate themselves into the emperor’s palace by dressing up as concubines. And the virile Captain Shang is symbolically emasculated when the Hun leader’s sword is stolen from him before he can present it to the emperor. After its recapture the emperor gives it to Mulan as a trophy. Wink-wink.

However ingeniously Disney may address its diverse audience in the U.S., it has one eye on the East. Mulan’s dynastic setting might not win favor in Beijing, but the film is carefully contrived to placate the People’s Republic, which was angered by Disney’s distribution of Kundun. The heroine herself, combining as she does the achievements of both daughter and son, is the ideal mascot for China’s unpopular one-child policy. The Huns may not emerge from a “renegade province,” but their evil is never in doubt: even in a blinding glare of snow they appear as in shadow. Their leader, Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer), is feral and menacing, a hulking doppelganger of the falcon he uses for reconnaissance; his eyes are pure black, only the pinpoints of light at their center indicating human consciousness. With these guys on the march, the preservation of an imperialist state is a matter of survival. Mulan climaxes with a mass genuflection outside the imperial palace, where the people have gathered to celebrate the defeat of the Huns. After his kidnapping and rescue, the emperor honors Mulan by bowing slightly; the crowd in the plaza follows his lead, dropping to its knees with a computer-generated regularity that can’t help but contrast with the defiant students who raised a homemade Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square.

With its corporate dread of big government, Disney’s boosting of Red China may seem out of character, but as with most corporations its politics change when it turns to emerging markets. The pillaging Huns are the same sort of lawless pirates who would disregard intellectual-property rights and, alternately, the sort of cultural extremists who would oppose all foreign influences. Viewing this risky new territory, Disney is more than willing to see big government establish the ground rules of capitalism and battle die-hard traditionalists. The ultimate payoff for the state’s heavy-handedness is the collective gaze that honors Mulan in the genuflection scene. For Disney, a mass-cultural market is the prize of modernity, the reason for emerging nations to emerge. Only when local cultural traditions die can Disney sell its brand of glossy nostalgia. Mulan is only its first step into China. Can Disneyland Beijing be far behind? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.