This tomboy's life

With the gender-bending Mulan, Disney's head is in the right place, but the heart is missing

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 does the singing for her.) And the craftsmen, 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 mid-leap; a marching song ("A Girl Worth Fighting For") ends abruptly when the men stumble on 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 like the 1950 Broken Arrow. Schoolgirls may get a kick out of Mulan, but I doubt they'll confuse it with the satisfaction they get from a rounded creation like 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. Opens Friday.

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