Disney’s Animated Transvestite
A few short years ago, Disney ripped off Japanese animation god Osamu Tezuka’s character Leo (Kimba) the White Lion for their biggest hit ever, The Lion King. For their new animated feature, they mine Tezuka territory again, this time basing their story on the same Chinese folk story that inspired Tezuka’s Princess Knight (aka Knight of the Ribbon).
At the same time, they’ve also returned to the formula of their previous hits like The Little Mermaid: a young, unorthodox heroine runs into trouble when she stands up to authority seeking romance and/or sticking to her beliefs. The tale is peppered with pleasant but forgettable song and dance numbers, further proving that the movie musical is only accepted now in the form of animation. The heroine is aided by one or two cute animal helpers and a trio of comical sidekicks.
Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is a tomboy in ancient China, trying hard to please her elders while nagged by her own rebellious spirit. When Mongol hordes invade China, the emperor imposes a military draft to raise an army against them. Mulan’s crippled war hero father fully intends to honor the family name and serve, despite his handicap. Mulan sneaks off and, disguised as a boy, enlists in his place – risking immediate execution if her ruse is discovered.
Just as the Disney artists brought ancient Greek motifs to the animation of Hercules, here they overlay everything in Chinese style. Though the martial environment affords ample opportunity for anime-style kung fu mayhem, all the action is disappointingly softened and glossed over. This is an odd choice considering the fact that the villain Shan-Yu (Miguel Ferrer) and his cronies are some of the most outright demonic characters in Disney history. Political correctness is both given its due and trashed in the area of voice casting – most of the leads are voiced by genuine Asian-Americans who speak their lines without a trace of accent, while Eddie Murphy plays a jive-talking dragon and the singing parts are filled by the likes of Donny Osmond and Marnie Nixon (what’s the point?).
Using a formula is not necessarily a bad decision – after all, lots of little kids love formula. But for adults, it seems like Disney wasted a huge opportunity to produce a work with depth beyond even that of their Hunchback of Notre Dame.