The last few Disney full length animated releases made me wonder if D.I.S.N.E.Y. stood for Disappointing Incredibly Stupid Never Ending Yawn-fests. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was intensely dull, Hercules was weak, and the only thing I found entertaining about Pocahantas was the Andrew Dice Clay mimic sitting in front of me who kept saying, "I wouldn't mind pokin' her hontas."
In these films, Disney covered lack of story and dialogue with really irritating music and it showed.
I love cartoons and despise musicals with an awe-inspiring zeal. Enter Disney's newest animated feature, Mulan. Mulan is based on a nearly 2,000-year-old Chinese legend about a young woman who risks her life (in more ways than one) to take her father's place in a Chinese war to fight off a Hun invasion.
Mulan (voiced by the lovely Ming Na Wen of The Joy Luck Club and NBC's The Single Guy) is about to enter bridal training so the village matchmaker can assign her a man to whom she must be a dutiful and regimented wife. Mulan angers the matchmaker and is sent home to learn that the Huns, led by Shan Yu, have invaded, and the emperor has ordered a man from each house to serve in China's army.
Mulan is an only child, and the only man of her house is her father, a war hero who still ails from the last war in which he fought but nonetheless is ready to die for his emperor. Mulan tells him he shouldn't have to fight, and he's quick to tell his daughter that he knows his place and that his daughter should learn hers.
Mulan steals her father's armor and sword as he sleeps and runs away to enlist in his place. The spirits of her concerned ancestors send Mushu, a pint-sized red dragon (voiced by Eddie Murphy), to rescue their "cross-dressing" granddaughter, who can be executed by her own army for impersonating a man before even setting foot on a battlefield. Mulan proves herself a clever and resourceful soldier, though, and doesn't even flinch in battle.
The music was kept to a minimum, and the pieces all seemed to fit; at least they weren't forced into the film as in the previous three Disney films. Even Donny Osmond as the singing voice of Captain Li Shang (B.D. Wong provided the speaking voice) does the film proud with the song "I'll Make a Man Out of You" in the film's training sequences.
Wen gives an incredible performance as Mulan and proves once again that she's one of Hollywood's most versatile young actresses by showing a great deal of range. Disney animators managed to put some physical characteristics of the multi-talented actress into the character she lovingly called "The Asian Joan of Arc," whom she had heard so much of as a child.
The biggest surprise of the film had to be comedian/actor Eddie Murphy, who is positively brilliant as the dragon Mushu. Murphy gives what has to be one of his best performances since 1986's The Golden Child. While Mushu is entirely a Disney creation (every Disney cartoon needs a cute animal sidekick), Murphy takes the character and runs with it in ways the writers could have only imagined.
Veteran actors Pat Morita and Miguel Ferrer contrast what's both best and worst in mankind in their characters of The Emperor of China and Shan Yu the Hun, respectively. They only added to what was a truly remarkable film. It stands to reason that directors Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook had only to sit back and watch this film make itself.
Mulan on the whole is a spectacular achievement in animation. The computer-generated sequences don't seem the least bit forced or mechanical and only add to the awe-inspiring visual quality of what has to be Disney's best work since The Lion King. I'm forced for the first time ever to give a film (this one) five stars, and it earned each and every one. I'm going to see this one again. It's great for kids and adults, and I have to be honest: There are parts of this film that almost brought a tear to my eye ... almost.