The strong and feisty female coming of age in the face of adversity has long been a favorite subject of Disney's animated films. There's the classic "Cinderella," whose heroine, with a little help from her bumbling fairy godmother, overcomes her step-family's wickedness. And then there's the more politically correct "Pocahontas," whose heroine's search for the one true path forges a temporary peace pact between her people and British settlers.
Yet in spite of their accomplishments, neither of these charming young heroines rings true. Perhaps it's because the ultimate reward for their efforts is usually a cardboard cut-out prince. What's worse, the leading ladies have settled for that. Snow White pined for a prince to come; Little Mermaid Ariel simply wanted a nice pair of gams; Sleeping Beauty didn't want to sleep solo; and Jasmine was content to stay in her castle, so long as Aladdin could stay there too. They've got spunk, sure, but it's only ink-deep. No, Disney's storytellers and animators have never gotten women right.
That is, until now. Loosely based on a popular Chinese folk tale, "Mulan" tells the story of a young woman trying to reconcile who she is with what her family, and society, expect of her. Mulan (spoken by Ming-Na Wen, sung by Lea Salonga) is an impetuous young girl, wide-eyed and carefree, on the brink of womanhood. As the movie opens, she is being prepared by her tradition-bound mother and sassy, hilarious grandmother, Fa, to meet the village matchmaker. "With good breeding and a tiny waist you'll bring honor to us all," the village ladies croon as they doll her up for the event. But Mulan is clumsy in her woman's body, caught in that awkward limbo where the body belongs to an adult but the child inside hasn't quite caught up. (Thankfully, unlike previous Disney heroines -- most notably Pocahontas -- her body isn't of Playboy proportions.) "When will my reflection show who I am inside?" she sings, echoing the timeless dilemma of every young woman attempting to define herself against cultural stereotypes.
When her ailing father is called by the Chinese army to battle invading Huns, Mulan defies his wishes and goes to fight in his place, rather than allow him to face certain death. Disguising herself as a man, she chops off her hair, steals her father's suit of armor and renames herself "Ping." She isn't rejecting her womanhood, necessarily -- she's simply attempting to honor her family the best way she can: She's young, healthy and confident she can fight. Although such trickery is considered treason, a crime punishable by death, her bravery and cunning in combat eventually force everyone she encounters to reevaluate what has been traditionally referred to as the "weaker" sex.
Mulan sets off for boot camp, where she's thrown in with a bunch of charmingly oafish men who are in no better shape for fighting Huns than she is. No longer grappling with being a girl in a woman's body, Mulan is presented with a whole new challenge: that of being a woman in a man's world. Recognizing her physical "weakness," she relies on her wits and strong will to make up for what she lacks in raw strength. G.I. Jane she is not. Her female instincts remain intact, even as she hides them behind a comically exaggerated macho swagger. When, for example, she first spots the hunky and shirtless Captain Shang (spoken by B.D. Wong, sung by Donny Osmond), she can't help but gawk at his chiseled torso. But unlike her animated predecessors, Mulan's desire for honor takes precedence over her desire for love. She becomes a butt-kicking warrior, winning the trust and respect of her fellow soldiers.
Of course, Mulan does not go it alone -- no animated Disney film would be complete without wacky sidekicks. She is accompanied into battle by a "lucky" cricket, Cri-Kee, and Mushu (Eddie Murphy), a jive-talkin' wee dragon who, in order to restore his own tarnished reputation among Mulan's ancestral spirits, tricks them into letting him be her protector. Murphy's wisecracking and his unforgettable voice, an odd meshing of deep chuckle and high-pitched squeal, bring comic relief to what is a rather serious story, without stealing the show (as Robin Williams did as the Genie in "Aladdin"). Murphy has recently abandoned his scatological, F-word-laden comedy routine to become a family entertainer, and here especially, this new role suits him well.
For the most part, "Mulan" tastefully avoids racial and gender stereotypes. Sure, there are a couple of won ton jokes. And Murphy's Mushu occasionally comes off as the run-of-the-mill wise-cracking black street punk. But even these clichis seem to exist for the express purpose of being destroyed, and they're often responsible for some of the film's most hilarious moments. What better examples do we have of men at their worst than dirty, rowdy soldiers who think there are no women around to hear them? When the soldiers bellow out their march song, "A Girl Worth Fighting For," in which they fantasize about a woman who can cook and serve, they scoff as Mulan chimes in, "What about a woman with thoughts of her own?" Finally, in a decisive battle, Mulan's strategy involves getting her fellow soldiers to dress as concubines. There's a point being made here about embracing one's masculine and feminine sides, but it's done with a light touch and not shoved down our throats.
Indeed, everything about "Mulan" is subtle -- the animation, the characters, the "lessons" -- even the marketing (so far) has been a surprisingly low-key affair. There's no fluffy fairy-tale ending. The incredible special effects, which make lush cherry blossoms as vivid as the intense battle scenes, are balanced by Disney's tradition of care and painstaking detail in developing and animating its characters.
By movie's end, Mulan has found out who she is: She's become a self-assured woman, a grownup. And Disney has clearly grown up with her, finally realizing there's a world in which women want more than a prince, and that people, even animated people, are made up of more brush strokes than those that can be nailed down to one color, gender or particular way of life.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WALT DISNEY PICTURES | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED