This Tomboy's Life

It's Christmas vacation, 1958. The movie my dad has chosen for a first-grade pal and me to see is the new Disney live-action adventure Tonka, starring Sal Mineo as a young Sioux named White Bull who traps and domesticates a clear-eyed, spirited wild horse named Tonka. Having seen The King and I, I'm all set to approach Native American culture in the proper getting-to-know-you spirit of liberal Fifties show biz.

The casting of Mineo loans the film a smidgen of danger, and thus makes it more attractive to us; we know him as the star of our older brothers' favorite juvenile-delinquent flicks. And White Bull is a bit of a rebel. He can't sit still when a cousin grabs Tonka and tortures the animal. So White Bull frees Tonka, who is then adopted by one of Custer's men and ends up the sole survivor, man or horse, of the Battle of Little Bighorn. White Bull eventually becomes an honorary U.S. cavalryman -- white bull of a different order. Other than that, Tonka proved to be a perfectly apt first-grade-boys' adventure. But it would have seemed just as swell if we'd seen it on Disney's Sunday-night TV show, and I can honestly say I had never given it a second thought. Until I saw Disney's latest animated feature, Mulan.

Mulan is a perfectly apt first-grade-girls' adventure. Compared to other recent Disney animated features -- the operatic bore Pocahontas, that bizarre misfire The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the self-congratulatory pseudosatire Hercules -- it has a modicum of freshness. Set in a feudal China plagued by fearsome Huns, it tells the story of a tomboy named Mulan who forsakes womanly robes for a male fighting rig and brings glory to her family as a warrior. The emperor has ordered every household to provide one conscript. Mulan is an only child, and her father is still ailing from an old war wound. To prevent him from going, Mulan joins the army in the guise of a son named Ping. It's no lark: Male impersonation within the ranks is a capital crime. But her ingenuity and strength enable her troop to save the emperor.

Like Tonka, Mulan respects ethnicity (well, maybe not that of the gray-skinned monster Huns), mixes coming-of-age fiction and facts (it starts with a failed defense of the Great Wall of China), and positions the protagonist as an outsider, always a sure-fire way to gain kiddie identification. Also like Tonka, it's nothing more than pleasant matinee fodder, and it probably wouldn't be winning effusive praise were it not for Mulan's status as a (gasp) feminist-approved Disney heroine.

It's true that most Disney animated heroines are vapid. But most Disney animated heroes are vapid too. (Actually, the sexy Meg in Hercules stole what there was to steal of the show.) Of the best recent Disney cartoons, Beauty and the Beast worked because the hero and heroine were complicated and evenly matched; Aladdin worked because a runaway comic crowded the lead couple off the screen. Mulan spends so much of its creative capital providing its title character with proper consciousness and values that there's little room left for beauty or invention. A musical sequence ("Honor to Us All") in Mulan's hometown spells out the traditional ideal of woman as gracious, subservient domestic; with that out of the way, the filmmakers settle down to the business of portraying everyday manly behavior as innately crass and combative (something Beauty and the Beast managed in a single glorious satiric number), geared to besting competitors and winning the admiration of women. Mulan proves not only that she can take physical hardship like a guy, but she can also think before she acts -- something beyond this film's view of a guy's capabilities.

Mulan's virtues as a female role model are manifold: She's smart and independent; just as important, she's comely yet no bombshell. During the brouhaha over Disney's Pocahontas -- which could be boiled down to "PC or not PC?" -- what bothered many women I know was that the title character was, in the words of a colleague, "so babealicious." Mulan won't spark a debate over whether body type is a feminist issue. She spends most of the movie in military drag, and when she falls in love with her squad leader, Li Shang, she doesn't swoon.

Li Shang is voiced by B.D. Wong, who made his reputation on-stage as M. Butterfly; Torch Song Trilogy playwright Harvey Fierstein provides the voice of one of the crudest recruits. So it's a piquant in-joke that Mulan's save-the-day inspiration centers on Shang's men disguising themselves as courtesans. The film is politically cohesive in its plea for looser sex roles, but artistically it's all over the place.

Mildly engaging though it is, the movie doesn't follow through on its initial promise to fill out a story without broad jokes and cute animals, or to be a Disney cartoon that doesn't look like a Disney cartoon. The animators' funny bone is out of joint with the main story. (The big comic set pieces are the obligatory barracks hijinks of a troop fight and a group bath.) So they throw in a puny yet ambitious dragon named Mushu (the voice of Eddie Murphy), a sassy, supernatural critter better suited to one of Disney's giddier extravaganzas. Murphy energizes Mushu vocally and temperamentally -- he's a frayed enfant terrible rather than a guardian spirit -- but visually the dragon is thunderously unmemorable. And let's not even talk about Mulan's other helpful little pal, a debilitatingly bland cricket named Cri-Kee. (Jiminy is probably rolling over in his grave.)

The animators attempt a sophisticated melange of Western and Eastern drawing and animation styles, from the calligraphic lettering of the opening title to the stark, almost woodcut visualization of the Huns, then on to the humorous and sweetly simple look of Mulan's roly-poly dog Little Brother. But before long melange turns to hodgepodge. In a typical misplaced homage, Mulan's nearsighted grandmother is made to look and act like Mister Magoo.

The inherent interest of the story, a vital lead performance, and a few tingling frissons are what keep the movie bobbing back. Ming-Na Wen brings a plangent urgency to her vocal characterization of the heroine. (Lea Salonga performs Mulan's singing.) And the filmmakers, at their best, seem to take their cue from Wen: A drilling song ("I'll Make a Man Out of You") climaxes a cappella with the frozen image of the unit in midleap; a marching song ("A Girl Worth Fighting For") ends abruptly when the men stumble upon a grim military debacle. If the Mulan team had the desire or the ability to sharpen and sustain their edginess, they might have achieved something special.

As a kid I got a kick out of Tonka but never confused it with the satisfaction I got from seeing a real cavalry-and-Indian movie such as Broken Arrow (1950). Schoolgirls may get a kick out of Mulan, but I doubt they'll confuse it with the satisfaction they get from a rounded creation of Beauty and the Beast. Girlhood may be powerful in this cartoon feature, but the animation isn't. For any kind of movie to cast a spell, it must have conviction and consistency. In Mulan the mood keeps getting shattered. The convocations of Mulan's ancestors and spirit guides resemble outtakes from Hercules, complete with postmodern humor such as an American Gothic farm couple popping up in the family's ranks. When the movie sinks to this level of attention-grabbing, you wonder why Disney didn't go all out and call it Moola.

Mulan.
Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. Written by Rita Hsiao, Christopher Sanders, Philip Lazebnik, Raymond Singer, and Eugenia Bostwick-Singer. With the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Harvey Fierstein, and Eddie Murphy.

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