Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen, singing: Lea Salonga) wants nothing more than to be a dutiful daughter and honor her family...it's just that she doesn't quite fit in with the chafing customs of her time. While most girls her age are trying to quietly and demurely seek the approval of the local matchmaker (Miriam Margoyles), Mulan would prefer speaking her mind.
But there is trouble on the horizon. The evil Huns, led by Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer), are invading China. The Emperor (Pat Morita) has decreed that each family must donate one man to serve in the army. The only male in Mulan's family is her father, Fa Zhou (Soon-Tek Oh), who, old and with a bad leg, honorably accepts his fate. Mulan, on the other hand, decides to save her father's life...by secretly masquerading as a man and taking his place on the battlefield.
Mulan, under the assumed name of Ping, appears at camp where she, along with the other bumbling recruits, Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo) and Ling (Gedde Watanabe), are trained in the art of war by Captain Shang (B.D. Wong, singing: Donny Osmond). But she's not alone in her tasks...in typical Disney fashion, she has three animal companions: her horse Khan, a lucky cricket Crickey, and a pint-sized "guardian" dragon called Mushu (Eddie Murphy).
Much like the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the humor in Mulan is lukewarm and doesn't flow well with the rest of the more serious story. Sure, some occasional comic relief is welcome, particularly in a film geared for the younger set, but Mulan overdoes it. The overdose of humor turns what could have been a powerfully great film into a good, but schizophrenic experience.
But, that commentary aside, this is a very well made film (which makes the formulaic additions all the more regrettable). The animation is on par with some of Disney's best. The story itself is interesting, and the action scenes are awe-inspiring.
The musical score to the film is enjoyable, though, as has been the case with Disney's recent work, the songs are mostly forgettable. At least, we're only subjected to four of them this time around.
Mulan boasts the highest death toll of any Disney cartoon to date. Most of the killing is off-screen and it's all highly depersonalized (there's nothing to compare with the death of Mufasa or Bambi's mom). There's nothing graphic, and the film resides snugly inside a G rating. Children will probably have more questions about the restrictive ancient customs than of the slaughter of armies.
It's ironic that a film concerned with bucking tradition is hampered because of its strict adherence to Disney tradition. If the filmmakers had the guts to lessen the humor, ax the compulsory songs, and remove the obligatory (and somewhat unrealistic) romance, they could have had a classic on their hands. Instead, they merely deliver a very good time at the movies.