Disney's `Mulan': Surprising Words And Scenes - And Visual Beauty, Too

Movie review XXX 1/2 "Mulan," featuring the voices of Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, Eddie Murphy, Harvey Fierstein, Soon-Teck Oh, Donny Osmond, Lea Salonga. Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, from a script by Rita Hsiao, Christopher Sanders, Philip Lazebnik, Raymond Singer and Eugenia Bostwick-Singer. 85 minutes. Several theaters. "G" - suitable for general audiences.

"Mulan," the new Disney film, is full of surprises. Noteworthy among them: It's the studio's first animated feature in my memory to use the words "cross-dresser" and "drag show," or to feature scenes of nose-picking and spitting. (And it's the first film of any kind to co-star the voices of Harvey Fierstein and Donny Osmond, but that's another story.) But the most pleasing surprises of "Mulan," set in the unfamiliar Disney territory of ancient China, are its visual beauty and its spirited heroine.

Although the film is based on a well-known Chinese legend, directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft have added plenty of standard Disney flavor. The title character is a young girl who's something of a misfit, in keeping with Disney's tradition of protagonists who are slightly "different" (Belle read all the time, the Hunchback was weird-looking, and there was something fishy about Ariel . . .). Mulan, presumably, doesn't fit in because she spends a lot of time talking to animals and singing gooey ballads to herself - like any good Disney heroine.

After Mulan sings "Reflection" for no compelling reason, war breaks out with the Huns (all of whom look quite nasty and sport dangly, Fu Manchu-style mustaches), and Mulan's ailing father must leave to fight. Worried for him, Mulan cuts her hair, steals his armor and takes off on his horse to join the army in his place, disguised as a boy. Various adventures ensue, and - surprise! - she saves the day through her quick thinking, and brings honor to her proud family.

Voiced sparklingly by the Chinese-American actress Ming-Na Wen, Mulan is a strong, engaging character who, unlike many of her Disney counterparts, needs no one to rescue her from danger. And, mercifully, the film doesn't end with wedding bells. A 9-year-old who accompanied me to the screening smiled happily at the movie's conclusion. "I like that it didn't have all that mushy stuff," she said.

But Mulan and her story are secondary to the film's astonishing look, credited to production designer Hans Bacher and a vast team of artists.

Inspired by the simplicity of traditional Chinese art, "Mulan" shimmers softly with a gray-washed palette of plummy blues, greens and pinks. Early scenes of the Great Wall are murky with blues and grays; the garden at Mulan's home is cloudy with cherry blossoms, as if sponge-painted onto the screen. Toward the end, there's a lovely crowd scene, in which lanterns held by spectators register as glowing dots of orange light. Computer-enhanced effects, particularly a battle scene in which hundreds of horseback Huns careen down a snowy hill, are equally impressive.

Not all is serious: That other Disney trademark, otherwise known as All Heroines Must Have a Funny and Extremely Marketable Sidekick, is here in full force. As the voice of Mushu, Mulan's "guardian dragon" and no doubt a future Toys-R-Us special, Eddie Murphy brings his brand of jarring but welcome humor.

There's also a second, more adorable sidekick: Cri-Kee, a small blue-and-purple cricket who's meant to be lucky, but succeeds at being . . . well, really cute.

I could quibble with "Mulan": Matthew Wilder and David Zippel's songs are at best forgettable and at worst (the thumping "I'll Make a Man Out of You") annoying. And was it really necessary to bestow Mulan with self-esteem problems? Because she seems so confident and intelligent, her sad statement that she wants to "see something worthwhile" in the mirror comes as a bit of a shock.

But these aren't major problems. Overall, this is a lovely film, ranking with the best of Disney's animated features while taking on rather serious issues of war, honor, gender roles and family pride.