Mulan (1998)

reviewed by
Martin Thomas

The test goes a little something like this- Go up to a female friend, wife, sister, etc. and say (if you are female pretend I'm saying this to you): "I was watching a movie on cable last night...Man, that Sharon Stone is so hot! Don't you think so?"...then turn your head and brace for your test subject's reply. The most polite response she's likely to give is a grimace while audibly rolling her eyes. I'd wager that most of you (feamle) bristled from just reading the test statement. One might hastily conclude from this test that all women are catty and incapable of paying each other a compliment. You would be incorrect. If you were to repeat the test statement and in place of "Sharon Stone" use "Julianna Margulies" or "Emma Thompson" you'll find you get an almost opposite reaction. You may even be applauded and perceived as a higher thinker. It's not that women don't compliment other women...just certain women. Julianna and Emma happen to fall on the ‘sanctioned' A-list. These are women who present themselves as smart, heroic, demure and...well, nonthreatening. Sure, Sharon Stone (as well as Demi Moore) has made great strides in getting higher salaries for women in Hollywood and she was lauded by critics for her performances in CASINO and LAST DANCE...still, there's that threatening/ nonthreatening thing. See, a common thread of the A-list women is that while men may find most of them attractive none of them are really considered to be "HOT".

This has been a sneak preview of my next career venture. Along with being a multimedia artist and movie critic I'm going to tour the country on the seminar circuit. Following in the footsteps of Dr. John Gray I'm going to further polarize the sexes by pontificating on the differences between men and woman, however, my focus will be a little different. From talking to alot of women I've come to realize that they can't or don't see the reality of what men, ALL MEN, truly are. This "dampening" effect, I believe, is biological and no different than the function that erases the memory of the pain of childbirth. My teachings are not aimed at demonizing male behavior but pointing out that it's perceived crudeness is the result of biological hardwiring, which is centered around sex and killing stuff. It is a constant struggle between instinct and the prime directive: The continuation of a society and propagation of the species. Of course, I'll also cover "Why your man couldn't care less about meeting your friends" and other long kept secrets- but for that and the rest you'll have to come hear me speak in the Ranchero room of your local Marriott or Red Lion and buy a $99 set of tapes. Well, anyway, I got to thinking about all of this while watching the reaction of MULAN when she enters the Chinese army training camp and discovers the true behavior of men when comfortably immersed in their natural element.

Since the marketing blitz has only been half that of HERCULES, you may not know that MULAN is the newest animated featured offered by Disney. It is the story of a young woman, Mulan (Ming Na Wen), who is too much of a tomboy and free spirit to marry off, thus bringing honor to her long-suffering family. When the Huns invade China the emperor calls for a male from every household to join the army. To spare her crippled father Mulan steals his armor, disguises herself as a man and joins the Chinese army- knowing that if she is found out she will be executed.

By now we're all familiar with the clocksetting formula Disney uses for it's movies so I think I can anticipate most of your questions. Let me start out by saying that nothing in MULAN is extraordinary or even amazing, but there is alot that's very good. One of the best things about MULAN is how understated it is. While HERCULES was as boisterous and boastful as Herakles himself, MULAN is much quieter and asks you to expect no more than it's willing to deliver. Have you noticed the absence of Happy Meal toys and the lack of commercials for it? The tone of MULAN is softer right down to its watercolor-like palette. The art is reminiscent of Chinese prints without being daring enough to let you forget that it's a Disney cartoon. Another thing in its favor is that unlike HERCULES, HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, POCAHONTAS, or even ALADDIN it is an original story with no literary or historical base to "piss" all over.

If there's anything in MULAN that comes close to being amazing it's how well they handled the characters. Especially the supporting and background characters which are the best since ALADDIN. They are all distinctive and ,except for Yao (who is basically REN & STIMPY's George Liquor with a beard) very Chinese without being racially insulting- In other words, no Jerry Lewis clones here. The obligatory ,annoying, comic-relief characters are kept to a minimum. Namely, Mushu the Dragon, as voiced by Eddie Murphy. Murphy does an excellent job and Mushu is a pretty good character, but he's on the set of the wrong movie. Even though the anachronistic humor has a much lower profile than in most Disney movies, MULAN is so deep in ancient Chinese culture that it wasn't until halfway through the picture that I got used to Mushu.

The character I was probably most impressed with was the General's son, Li-Shang. Whereas Hercules was about as Greek as a McGyro, Li-Shang is the most ethnic looking stud/ love interest Disney has ever done. It was good to see a character that was handsome, proud, and every bit Chinese...except for his singing voice. Li-Shang is voiced by B.D.Wong, until a very important scene when he opens his mouth to sing and the most Anglo voice imaginable comes out of it. The voice belongs to Donnie Osmond- and I'm not speaking metaphorically, it really is DONNIE "whiter than an albino mime" OSMOND! It's very jarring and doesn't help that the song is not all that good either. Well, you knew you couldn't escape one of these without suffering through a few psuedo- show tunes. Replacing the usual composer "Broadway" Tim Rice is "one-hit-wonder" Matthew Wilder. If that name sounds familiar to you turn on your radio to K-LITE and you're likely to hear him belting out: "Ain't nuthin' gonna break-a my stride...". The songs in MULAN leave you wondering, not "where did he disappear to?" but "who thought it was a good idea to find him?". On the positive side, MULAN has the fewest songs of any of the others (maybe 4) and the score is nice.

As for the story, it's very simple and predictable, yet enjoyment. Though it centers around the gender conflicts and honor, it is mostly a story of empowerment. A must-see for little girls and a should-see for little boys. I couldn't help but make comparisons to G.I. JANE. Unfortunately, it also borrowed the one thing from G.I. JANE that I didn't like. As both movies seem to be settling into very low key but poignant endings, they tack on a poorly-conceived action sequence. It's as if the investors had a meeting and decided that their targeted audience wouldn't be happy without it. In the case of MULAN it may have also been a matter of trying to stretch out the time. Oh well, it is a kid's movie. And YES, it IS a kid's movie! For all of you parents who felt burned by THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, you can go back into the water. I assure you that MULAN is safe. About the most uncomfortable question you'll have to answer is, "Do the Chinese really such a low threshold for embarrassment?"

BTW- There is a male counterpart to that test question Casually say to your brother, friend, male co-worker, etc.: "I think George Michael is sooo hot! I can't believe people think he's gay."

Then cover your ears.

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