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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Mulan

Starring: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy
Director: Jeff Tracha
Rated: G
RunTime: 88 Minutes
Release Date: June 1998
Genres: Animation, Kids

*Also starring: B.D. Wong, Lea Salonga, Mayor Quimby, Gedde Watanabe, Miguel Ferrer, Pat Morita, James Hong, June Foray

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1.  Edward Johnson-Ott review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
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Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

For the benefit of curious parents, let's get the formalities out of the way. Your kids will have all ball at Disney's "Mulan." Packed with action and humor, the film is imaginative, fun and fast-paced, presenting a strong tale of female empowerment while imparting a positive message about the importance of being true to yourself.

On the surface level, the film succeeds as fine light entertainment for adults as well. The disposable pop songs are mercifully short and few in number and the animation is striking, particularly in a majestic scene showing hundreds of warriors racing down a mountain slope. Too often, computer animation sticks out like a sore thumb when placed in the context of a traditionally animated film. Here, the CGI is beautifully integrated in a number of scenes that dazzle the eyes with a wealth of visual information.

Disney magic aside, "Mulan" is even more interesting when you examine what's going on under the surface. Remember all the raised eyebrows last year when Eddie Murphy was stopped by sheriffs while giving a ride to a transsexual hooker? The motives for his good Samaritan act were questioned at the time, but now everything is clear. Eddie was just doing research for his role in "Mulan", the first animated cross-dressing musical.

Murphy provides the voice for Mushu, a wise-cracking guardian dragon who accompanies our heroine on her adventures. When marauding Huns attack ancient China, the government calls for one man from every family to join the Imperial Army. Despite his age and physical limitations, Mulan's father prepares to go. She objects, only to be told "I know my place. It is time you learn yours." Undeterred, the spirited girl lops off her hair, dons her father's battle gear and takes off in his place, masquerading as a man. Of course, Disney cartoons require comic sidekicks and Mulan gets two; a good-luck cricket and Murphy's dragon, who offers advice and assistance as the fledgling warrior trains at boot camp for war.

"Mulan's" humor has a decidedly gay sensibility, with Murphy providing one-liners like "I'm doomed! And all because Miss Man decided to take her drag show on the road!" Murphy delivers his lines with the kind of distinct snap most often associated with gay camp humor. The drag theme continues throughout the film, as three of Mulan's bumbling fellow soldiers (including the gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein) dress as women to infiltrate an enemy stronghold. In geisha drag, the trio throw themselves completely into their roles, with a funny mix of slapstick and high camp. Hetero audiences may view the scenes as mere farce, but gay viewers will know better. Tellingly, the only soldier who doesn't do drag is the troop's captain, a hunky leader who spends a good deal of the story with his shirt off.

The film wanders into the Tim Allen approach to gender stereotypes, with Mulan's attempts to impersonate a male coming straight from the "men are pigs" line of thought. At the urging of her dragon advisor, she spits, grunts and gives the other soldiers friendly punches to the arm and slaps on the butt. Thankfully, the story doesn't waste much time on this overdone line of shtick. Spirituality plays a role in "Mulan," with four prayer scenes featured early in the story. Had the film been set in the Western world, it's unlikely that any religious references would have been made, but to many contemporary Americans, Eastern faiths are picturesque, exotic and even trendy, which makes their inclusion acceptable. In pop culture, religion is okay only if it's trippy and several thousand miles away. As if to underscore the point, Murphy's character does a mocking impression of a Christian evangelist in one funny scene.

In fairness, even the Eastern beliefs receive a bit of tweaking, with Mulan's revered ancestors presented as comically bickering ghosts. This fits neatly with Disney's Epcot take on Chinese culture, used as an attractive motif, but with about as much authenticity as the China pavilion at Orlando's World Showcase. While the animation springs from the "less is more" school of Chinese art, the Mouseketeers give it a Western spin, with fast, swooping movements from the broadly drawn secondary characters.

Despite Disney's trademarked candy-coated Americanization of foreign cultures, the film still succeeds, thanks to its sense of style, some very nice animation and a simple, but genuinely strong story. Young Mulan fails when trying to adopt the mannerisms of traditional Chinese women and fumbles when pretending to be a man. Only when she ignores societal expectations and uses her innate wit and strength of character does she succeed. That's a good message and "Mulan" is a good movie. Join the kids and whoop during the battle scenes or sit back and evaluate the subtext. Either way, you're going to have fun.

Copyright 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott

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