Despite pouring new content into the now customary Disney mould (reluctant hero, evil nemesis, animal sidekicks, mushy ballads), Mulan is a darker, more adult tale with a harder edge than Pocahontas or Hercules. The changes are subtle: the plot is more adventurous and the visual style - - taking its cues from traditional Oriental art - - is more minimalist and experimental, while the love story element isn't the focus of the narrative. Instead, Mulan leans heavily on rites of passage, honour and talking dragons from Brooklyn.
Based on an ancient Chinese poem (rather than a story pillaged from a Western fairytale), this marks a fresher approach to the annual Disney animated feature. Dramatic and funny, it's a cross-dressing, musical war epic that should
be as appealing to post-pubescents as it will be to its target audience of excitable kids. In its favour, the 'toon epic boasts a pseudo-feminist heroine (""Just because I look like a man doesn't mean I have to smell like one"") and a charismatic bad guy who oozes Darth Vader-style menace. The supporting roles (at least those of note), are filled by a rag-tag of comedy soldiers, a lucky cricket, various family members and a wannabe hero with a touch of Bruce Lee about him.
Compensating for the lack of meaty plot (girl meets barbarians intent on seizing China), Mulan devotes most of its time to fleshing out characters. Compared with Disney's more recent efforts, there's a distinct lack of heavy-weight voiceover talent on show. But Eddie Murphy makes up for the celeb-vacuum and, as Mushu the helpful dragon, the Dr Dolittle star pulls off an exuberant stand-up for kids, although adults will get most of the humour. It's an enthusiastic, raw performance; its film-stealing slapstick and wordplay are obviously indebted to how Robin Williams improvised Aladdin's genie.
While you can take or leave the singing, you can't ignore the quality of the artwork. Although we see very little of ancient China, it looks right and feels right, from instant Oriental scene-setters like the Great Wall to Mulan's brightly painted village. And if these are dramatic and powerful, the animation verges on the magical during the snowbound battle scenes. The sequence with the Huns charging through mountain snow in a blur of traditional hand-painted cels and computer-generated visuals is astonishing in its detail and complexity.
Most importantly, Mulan is fun: a genuinely funny, fantastical adventure. And while it suffers from a sluggish training and singing middle section, it explodes with a thumping good ending, jostled ever onwards by Murphy's boundless enthusiasm. It's not quite the tour de force that Aladdin was but, hauling out the Disney yardstick, easily outclasses Hercules, Pocahontas and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. If only there was a catchy, memorable song...