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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Mulan' Follows Disney's Magic Formula

Mulan," the 1998 Disney cartoon musical adventure extravaganza now playing at the American House of Cinema, is, without doubt, your usual sort of Disney cartoon musical adventure extravaganza: cast of thousands, exotic locales, bright pop songs, cutesy comic relief, a plucky lead defying convention, cracking wise and overcoming impossible odds.

That about covers it. The basic formula never changes, and the only real interest (as apart from the undeniable diversion of large-scale, big-screen animation) lies in the variations of setting and differing degrees of execution among these otherwise assembly-line productions. (Assembly-line indeed; some 700 technicians were required for "Mulan.")

As far as degree of execution goes, "Mulan" ranks somewhere in the upper middle of the modern Disney cartoon canon. It doesn't quite reach the often-inspired heights of "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Little Mermaid," but it is far above such tepid offerings as "Pocahontas" or, especially, the lame-brained, even offensive "Hercules."

Although, as in "Hercules," Disney again adapts a myth of an ancient culture, this time they stay away from the grotesque trivialization and condescension of that earlier movie. The setting here is China, but we don't get, say, Confucius as a gangly teenager, or some such nonsense.

We do, however, get Eddie Murphy as a wacky little dragon, spouting anachronistic street slang, "hip" comedy riffs and "ironic" references to modern times - a character inescapable in Disney cartoons since Robin Williams pulled in gigantic crowds as the genie in "Aladdin." And of course, there are the songs, which seem to get more puerile with each new Disney production.

(It's a shame that all these cartoon epic-makers think they must have Broadway treacle. Even Dreamworks' new "Prince of Egypt" - which is not a mere "cartoon" but an "animated film," we are told by the studio - has to throw some song-and-dance into its somber retelling of the Moses story.)

"Mulan" is based on a Chinese folk tale about a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to help defend the country against an invasion. As retold here by writer Robert San Souci, the story also has heavy overtones of Barbra Streisand's "Yentl" - although her Talmudic scholars are replaced by warriors.

When the nation is threatened by the Huns, Mulan runs off to join the army. This saves the honor of her family, for her father is too crippled to fight; it also gets her out of an arranged marriage she doesn't want.

Naturally, the army doesn't take women, so she slips into masculine drag and soon her martial prowess attracts the attention of her captain, Shang. Shang attracts her attention, too; in fact, he makes her heart go pitter-pat, and she is soon involved in the usual complications of unwary cross-dressers in fable and drama.

You will have already guessed how the plot resolves itself, but that's not really important. What matters most are the slight deviations and general atmosphere. And it is here that "Mulan" proves most winning. The animation scheme is impressive, recalling at times ancient Chinese paintings: a subtle appreciation, not outright appropriation.

So there is much to admire in "Mulan," if almost nothing to surprise or delight. Children will doubtless like it, and adults certainly will not be bored.

- Chris Floyd