Tech Reviews -- Mulan's Quest To Restore Magic Breaks Disney Mold

The government may stop collecting taxes, the sun may set and never rise again, Rush Limbaugh may run out of things to say, but Disney will not allow the summer movie season to pass without releasing a full-length animated cartoon.

This year's classic is "Mulan," a story about a brave Chinese girl who steals her aging father's armor and pretends to be a man so that she can enlist in the army in her family name to protect her father from being conscripted.

The movie is heart-warming, fun and humorous, and tugs at the old heartstrings about the way you would expect Disney movies to tug. In short, it does a good job of following the established Disney formula.

You can count on Disney Interactive following up the release of Disney animated features with an animated storybook on a Windows/Macintosh CD-ROM. I have every one of Disney's animated storybooks, from "Aladdin" to "Hercules," and they follow a more rigid cookie-cutter formula than Disney movies. At least they did until now.

For some reason, Disney Interactive chose to break the mold with "Mulan Animated Storybook." Some of the changes are better than others, but thank goodness for change! Disney's other animated storybooks looked like the movies they were based on but had very minimal interactivity. They would show a scene with a brief, non-interactive animation, followed by a narrator reading a brief text.

"Mulan Animated Storybook" strays from this pattern. By

providing a very sketchy storyline and a highly interactive interface, Disney has put a new face on this product.

It begins with the ghost of one of Mulan's ancestors, featuring the voice talent of George Takei (Sulu in "Star Trek"), giving five magic scrolls to a tiny dragon named Mushu (played to campy heights by Eddie Murphy). Mushu drops the scrolls and the magic falls out of them. To redeem himself, Mushu must visit the village, Mulan's home, the soldier camp, the battlefield, and the imperial palace, find the scrolls, and restore their magic.

Restoring the magic means playing hunt-and-click with your mouse to guide Mulan from her home, through the war between China and the Huns, and to the palace.

In earlier animated storybooks you would have watched this spectacle passively; but in "Mulan Animated Storybook," you control the action by leading Mulan through her village, dressing her to meet a matchmaker, helping her steal her father's armor, and waking her ancestors. Adults and teenagers will find these activities way too simple, but they're fun for the 5- and 6- year-old crowd for whom this product was designed.

Like other animated storybooks, which generally include a couple of interactive games, "Mulan Animated Storybook" has Mahjong (sometimes referred to as Chinese dominoes), a maze game and a memory game. It also has a karaoke-style singalong option that includes songs from the movie.

The biggest surprise, however, is the "Imperial Storymaker" application. Once you help Mushu gather and restore all five scrolls, you can enter the palace and use the Imperial Storymaker - a rather nice creativity tool.

The Imperial Storymaker is an art tool that lets users combine backgrounds and characters from the "Animated Storybook" and add their own texts to make stories of their own.

While this tool is not as sophisticated as the storybook makers in "Imagination Express" and other similar pieces of software, it makes an excellent addition to the animated storybook formula.

By adding this tool, Disney has elevated "Mulan Animated Storybook" from game status to educational tool. I'm not suggesting that Mulan or any other animated storybook be considered a great creativity tool, but this does give it a certain additional value.

Not all of the changes Disney Interactive made with "Mulan Animated Storybook" improve the formula, however. It may be that "Mulan Animated Storybook" is the least attractive title in the Disney Animated Storybook series. The CD is only two-thirds filled, meaning Disney Interactive had a lot of space for storing better graphics or clips from the actual movie.

Unfortunately, Disney did not go the extra mile in that direction. I say "unfortunately" because after the initial excitement of playing "Mulan Animated Storybook" wears thin, most children will wish the game looked more like the movie.

Overall, "Mulan Animated Storybook" is an above-average product for 5- and 6-year-olds. They may not like the look of the scenes, but they will enjoy the interactivity and, with any luck, they will become entranced with the storybook maker.