Film: Ambiguous to the bone

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The Independent Culture
Most of the heroines in Disney's recent animated features have felt like one-woman apologies for the docile female stereotypes previously promoted by the studio's films. If Disney remade Snow White today, you can bet that the seven dwarfs would have to jolly well find their own way around the kitchen, while it would take considerably more than a kiss to persuade Sleeping Beauty to cut short her lie-in. In the new film Mulan, a girl disguises herself as a male soldier in order to spare her ailing father from certain death in combat. This set-up has got it all. A pro- active heroine who doesn't want to waste her life tending to a man and petting woodland animals; a strong father/daughter relationship to compensate for the ferocious exclusion of all female influence in The Lion King; honour and nobility; and, of course, cross-dressing. Moderately risky fun for all the family.

Mulan herself isn't too different from Disney's most convincing revisionist heroine, Belle, in Beauty and the Beast. Both are uncomfortable with society's expectations of them and both, through their devotion to their father, trap themselves in alien situations which reveal their unexpected strengths. Mulan doesn't conform too neatly to ancient China's idea of how a woman should act, and there are enough discrepancies in her imitation of male behaviour to prevent her from being written off as a tomboy either; she can't quite grasp that spitting thing, for example - the phlegm just dangles from her lips.

The point is that she is androgynous to the bone, a character who can elicit the sympathies and identification of male and female children in equal measures, something never before accomplished in a Disney film. In many of the movie's early shots, Mulan is presented as a conflicted soul: her face is divided by a fork of hair, or the shadow from a sword, or scrubbed only half-clean of its make-up.

The war against the Huns provides her not only with an opportunity to save her father, but to express in physical terms her dissatisfaction with the role which society has allotted to her. You don't question why it takes only a few minutes, a spot of thunder and lightning and a blast of Euro-rock for Mulan to arrive at the decision to switch gender, which is a good sign that the film makers have already conveyed her sense of turmoil effectively enough.

When you disguise your heroine as a man, then you're only a whisker away from an embarrassing case of mistaken sexuality.

Fine if this is Twelfth Night, more tricky when it's a Disney film we're talking about. The situation is handled with commendable tact and grace in Mulan, so that the sexual confusion feels neither trivialised nor ignored. When you see Mulan's commanding officer in the Imperial Army, you sit bolt upright in your seat, primed for trouble. Captain Shang is a refinement of the traditional Disney hero - impossibly pretty, fearsomely proportioned and, for the most part, shirtless, though without the dreadful dippyness we've come to expect. What will he make of this young recruit who keeps gawping at his pecs? For the sake of decency, the infatuation is limited to admiring glances, and Mulan's identity is revealed long before she and Shang can get around to booking a table together. But the thrilling frisson of the best fairy tales has already worked its magic, and the moment has chimed with those other examples of strange, new sensations in the nursery - Tinkerbell getting catty with Wendy, or Mowgli making goo -goo eyes at the girl across the river.

The film's view of masculinity isn't especially sophisticated but it is playful, and this tendency extends to some of the vocal casting. It has to be somebody's idea of an in-joke that the two most fiercely macho characters are voiced by actors whose previous appearances have been characterised by camp elements - B D Wong, best known as Martin Short's prissy assistant in the Father of the Bride films, and Harvey Fierstein of Torch Song Trilogy. Their participation can only give credence to the film's assertion that pre-conceptions are there to be overturned, as indeed does the use of Donny Osmond to sing "I'll Make a Man Out of You", the most memorable of the picture's five excellent songs.

Mulan is easily the most satisfying animated feature from Disney since the studio's commercial rejuvenation at the start of this decade, and the film's success is also unusually illuminating; in getting so much right it identifies what has been going so wrong in the past few years. One of the best things about the film is that its embellishments never detract from the central story. This is not as simple as it might seem. The jovial gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame felt like a betrayal of the rest of the movie, while Hercules collapsed under the weight of its 20th century in-jokes.

Somehow, the presence of a dragon who speaks in African-American street vernacular doesn't upset the balance of Mulan, perhaps because the character isn't used to smuggle in any life-affirming platitudes. The quality of his one-liners, and the vitality of Eddie Murphy's performance perfectly validate his role as comic relief. And the visual anachronisms have a winning ingenuity - a cricket tramples in ink then hops around on a sheet of parchment, stamping out Chinese characters and clicking like a typewriter; the same insect has its wings twisted tight, so that upon unwinding it trings like an alarm clock.

It is also worth noting that Mulan is one of the most visually innovative movies that Disney has made, a work which, in its own way, is as unique as Snow White or Fantasia were in their day.

The look of the film owes a great deal to the elegant minimalism of traditional Chinese art. But it is in tandem with other disparate elements that this look achieves its power. The production designer Hans Bacher has referred to the movie's "poetic simplicity" - using a sparseness of detail and a lot of information. During the shot where the Hun army appear over a snowy landscape to line the horizon, the camera soars over them as they charge, picking up details in a mass of bodies which, unusually for CGI (computer-generated imagery), have real depth and weight.

The figures here, and in the eerie, lantern-lit crowd scenes at the end, suggest both spectre and human, an effect which echoes Ralph Bakshi's fusions of cartoon and man in Lord of the Rings.

It is typical of Mulan's originality that its animated effects do something more than just replicate the tricks of a live action movie, which is what Disney features have been falling back on. Some of its boldest moments also happen to be its most simple ones. There is an understated but very telling visual rhyme between the smudges of make-up on Mulan's face in the early scenes and, later, the bruises which now occupy the same areas. It might be a comment on the brutality of gender roles or it could just be a pleasant effect. I guess the pleasure is in the ambiguity, a quality not usually associated with a company who tend to put the franchise before the film.