Barnyard of the Soul

area theaters, starts Friday

It is dawn in ancient China. Fa Zhou, the kindly and principled father of Mulan, kneels in the small roofed shrine of his family's compound. The light surrounds him with a soft rosy envelope; deep fuzzy shadows stretch across the floor behind him as he honors his ancestors amid the gravestones. And then squawking chickens swoop in, chased by a yapping dog that hasn't been controlled by Fa Zhou's distracted daughter. Mulan apologizes deeply but too late, Fa Zhou grumbles forgiveness, and once again in a Disney movie the barnyard has stomped on the soul.

Recall that Disney began in the barnyard, where Mickey and his goat/cow/duck/dog pals played ricky-ticky melodies and yanked each other's tails to mildly comic effect. But Disney--first Walt and then his studio--has also shown itself capable of caring about the soul, as witnessed in the sadder parts of Snow White and Bambi or, more recently, the heartfelt introspections of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

You could make an academic thesis out of this or at least a pop-culture diatribe, but what bugs me about the barnyard-vs.-soul thing in Mulan is that Disney is so clearly reaching out to two different audiences--and succeeding. Mulan is actually a solid animated feature if you think of it as two chapters from different stories. One story is funny and raucous, as Disney's animation technique studies the slapstick of interrelated character action; and the other story is sincere and thoughtful, spinning off the ever-popular "Who am I?" plot device to establish a young, conflicted woman as a genuine national savior. Mulan herself, at a point of low confidence, even sees her own face in the polished granite of those gravestones. She understands that she owes her ancestors something, but she's not ready to pay with the usual currency of womanly delicacy and submission.

As both a comic action-adventure and a coming-of-age saga, Mulan isn't shabby. The girl who fumbles through her matchmaker's audition (spilling tea, smearing ink, wreaking havoc on the matchmaker) becomes a fast-thinking warrior who can shoot a single arrow where it really counts.

Thanks to her principles and unrealized ambition, she goes to war in her father's armor so he won't have to fight the invading Huns. Her main Hun enemy, Shan-Yu, is coarse and limited by Disney standards, but her buddies include a mismatched trio of soldiers (Three Stooges, anyone?), a cute little voiceless cricket, and a sassy magical dragon named Mushu (voice of Eddie Murphy) who needs to prove himself as a Fa family guardian. In terms of both sweeping action and comedy, this is grade-A stuff, furious and silly. It equals Gaston's bar fight in Beauty or the Genie's millisecond wisecracking in Aladdin.

From a very different direction, Mulan's feminist theme deserves note but it doesn't really go much beyond Belle's bookishness in Beauty or Ariel's stubbornness in The Little Mermaid. Mulan broods about what's proper for a girl or a man but she's merely given better opportunities to prove herself than Belle, who also had a father to save but no war to worry about. The novel sensitivity of this legend drawn from "Asian culture" is also in the headlines, but the hype seems misplaced--and there's also an audibly African-American dragon to deal with. In fact, funny as he is, why does Eddie Murphy even need to be in this movie? In the face of a girl's heroism, why is he making jokes about his bunny slippers or announcing he's "travel-sized for your convenience"? And why, in any movie, are black people always popping up with gospel music or dialect jokes to set white people straight (and now Chinese, too)? What is the point here--to please the crowd or get the story going?

Ignoring its own mixed motives, Mulan tries very hard to be at least two things to all people. The confusion is resolved in an intense commitment to the look of this epic. Richer in color and motion than The Hunchback of Notre Dame and much less noisy than the shallow Hercules, the movie draws well-meant inspiration from Chinese art.

The landscapes are compressed and seen from that bird's-eye angle, the clouds and smoke roll in curlicues, and the colors are jade, ivory, plum, celadon, cherry, and stoneware gray. Mulan is both prettier and more ambitious than a Disney feature has been in years, proving more than ever that the studio finds its soul in pure technique.

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