Not just one of my favourite animated movies, but one of my all-time favourite films of any kind. Mulan's home life is less fun than her time as as a soldier (a particular handicap when Mulan goes home at the end for an unavoidable anticlimax) but it's important for establishing all kinds of stuff... not least this Chinese's society's absolute adherence to honour. To Western eyes, the morals and mores on display here are more alien than anything you'll find in Star Trek
. The movie had an almost impossible task in trying to immerse us in its ancient Chinese value system, and all things considered I think it does impressively well. Mulan's personal honour journey is genuinely moving, though Eddie Murphy's disgraced, redemption-hungry dragon is never anything other than yet another wisecracking Disney sidekick. But he's (a) funny and (b) not human, so I can forgive that.
Admittedly Mulan herself is yet another feisty Disney heroine who obviously arrived in China courtesy of 1990s political correctness, but here it works in exactly the same way Pocahontas doesn't. That film's Native Americans were a mushy New Age fantasia, while Mulan's Chinese society of honour and chauvinism manages to resist being romanticised.
But forget the cultural stuff. What makes this film cool is the violence! Mulan is the best female action hero I've ever seen in a movie, with the possible exception of Ellen Ripley in Aliens
. Look at what Mulan achieves and the quality of the opposition she beats (including Captain Shang himself while she's only in training - and he's pretty much a martial master). The action scenes are thrilling and the Hun leader, Shan Yu, is one of Disney's scariest villains. He doesn't get to kill anyone on-screen (boo hiss!) but we do see a burned-out village and a field of butchered corpses on a battlefield. This is nasty stuff. None of the Huns look reassuring, but the massive Shan Yu is practically an animal. He's a magnificent creation.
Mulan's fellow soldiers are great, too. They're stupid, repulsive, violent, mean-spirited and as funny as hell. Mulan deserves a medal just for getting through the film with them. Their comedy antics have more of an edge than is usual in Disney animated movies, and I loved 'em to pieces.
Captain Shang is interesting. His first scene is uncharacteristically boyish (which was probably deliberate, to stop him seeming too cold and rigid to be likeable) but after that he becomes quite an unusual character. He's certainly a million miles away from the usual male romantic lead figure, being an unforgiving taskmaster whom you could actually imagine killing Mulan if her deception was uncovered. Even at the end he can't make himself show affection (boy, is he bad at small talk!) but if you watch his facial expressions you'll see quite a bit going on underneath. When Mulan says she only did it to save her father, watch Shang. He has father stuff going on too. Personally I think he knows he's young for his promotion and is determined to do everything right, driving himself as hard as his men.
Stylistically, the film is more interesting than it looks. On first viewing I was disappointed that its artwork didn't make more use of Chinese painting styles, but in fact the drawings show a strong Chinese influence. It only doesn't seem that way because the animation of those drawings is so smooth and lifelike that you don't notice much of the stylisation. There are also plenty of "wow, cool!" visual moments, such as the ancestors' awakening or the Hun charge across the snows. There's a fair amount of CGI here, but it never feels out of place.
The songs are... well, they're better than the songs in Pocahontas. They're pretty poor, especially "A Girl Worth Fighting For", but the accompanying visuals do much to rescue them. "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" won't be making anyone's top ten list as a song, but it works fine as the soundtrack to a string of sight gags as Captain Shang trains up his motley crew of no-hopers. It's one of the film's best sequences, but I don't think it's a coincidence that after this Disney started rethinking the musical content of their animated features. Tarzan had its music in the background instead of having the characters sing, then The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire have just one song between them (though it's a good'un). Let's face it, the only Disney movie you'd buy for the songs is The Little Mermaid. Disney's songs had been going downhill since then, especially when Howard Ashman died during the making of Aladdin.
Mulan is a fabulous film - thrilling, moving and funny. Even the minor characters are fun (e.g. the bad-tempered horse) and Mulan herself kicks arse. A friend of mine commented that he'd sooner have Mulan alongside him in a fight than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though I'm not sure I'd agree given that Buffy has superpowers. It's Disney's most hard-edged animated feature to date and in my opinion among their very best. If you haven't seen it, get a copy now!