Tonka Turns Tomboy
It's Christmas vacation, 1958. The movie my dad has chosen for a first-grade pal and me to see is the new Disney live-action adventure Tonka, starring Sal Mineo as a young Sioux named White Bull who traps and domesticates a clear-eyed, spirited wild horse named Tonka. Having seen The King and I, I'm all set to approach Native American culture in the proper getting-to-know-you spirit of liberal '50s show biz.
The casting of Mineo has made the film a smidgen more dangerous and thus attractive to us -- we know him as the star of our older brothers' favorite juvenile-delinquent flicks. And White Bull is a bit of a rebel. He can't sit still when a cousin grabs Tonka for himself and tortures the animal. So White Bull frees Tonka, who is adopted by one of Custer's men and ends up the sole survivor, man or horse, of the Battle of Little Big Horn. White Bull becomes an honorary U.S. cavalryman himself -- white bull of a different order. Other than that, Tonka proved to be a perfectly apt first-grade boys' adventure. But it would have seemed just as swell if we'd seen it on Disney's Sunday night TV show, and I can honestly say I've never given it a second thought -- until I saw Disney's latest animated feature, Mulan.
Mulan is a perfectly apt first-grade girls' adventure. Compared to the operatic bore Pocahontas, that bizarre misfire The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the self-congratulatory pseudo-satire Hercules, it has a modicum of freshness going for it. Set in a feudal China beset by fearsome Huns, it tells the story of a tomboy named Mulan who forsakes womanly robes for a male fighting rig and brings glory to her house as a warrior. The emperor has ordered every household to provide one conscript. Mulan's an only child, and her father is still ailing from an old war wound. To protect him, Mulan joins the army in the guise of a son named Ping. It's no lark: Male impersonation is a capital crime in the ranks of imperial China. But her ingenuity and strength enable her troop to salvage the Chinese military and save the emperor.
Like Tonka, Mulan respects ethnicity (well, maybe not that of the gray-skinned monster Huns), mixes coming-of-age fiction and facts (it starts with a failed defense of the Great Wall of China) and positions the protagonist as an outsider -- always a sure-fire way to gain kiddie identification. Also like Tonka, it's nothing more than pleasant matinee fodder with some jarring tones and clunky stretches. And it probably wouldn't be winning fulsome praise were it not for Mulan's status as (gasp) a feminist-approved Disney heroine.
It's true, as Mulan's fans point out, that most Disney animated heroines are vapid. But most Disney animated heroes are vapid, too. (Actually, the sexy Meg in Hercules stole what there was to steal of the show.) Of the best recent Disney cartoons, Beauty and the Beast worked because the hero and heroine were complicated and evenly matched; Aladdin because a runaway comic crowded the lead couple off the screen. Mulan spends so much of its creative capital providing its title character with proper consciousness and values that there's little room left for beauty or invention. A musical sequence in Mulan's hometown, "Honor to Us All," spells out the traditional ideal of woman as gracious, subservient domestic; with that out of the way, the filmmakers settle down to the business of portraying everyday manly behavior as innately crass and combative (something Beauty and the Beast managed in a single glorious satiric number), geared to besting competitors and winning the admiration of women. Mulan proves she can take physical hardship like a guy and think before she acts, something beyond this film's view of a guy's capabilities.
Mulan's virtues as a female role model are manifold: She's smart and independent; just as important, she's comely yet no bombshell. During the brouhaha over Disney's Pocahontas -- which could be boiled down to, "PC, or not PC?" -- what bothered many women I know was that she was, in the words of a colleague, "so babe-alicious." Mulan won't engender a debate over whether body type is a feminist issue. She spends most of the movie in military drag, and when she falls in love with her squad leader, Li Shang, she doesn't swoon. Unlike a male action hero, she does articulate her romantic devotion for him -- at least to the audience.
Li Shang is voiced by B.D. Wong, who made his reputation on-stage as M. Butterfly; and Harvey Fierstein plays one of the crudest recruits. So it's a piquant in-joke that Mulan's save-the-day inspiration centers on Shang's men disguising themselves as courtesans. But if Mulan is politically cohesive in its plea for looser sex roles and gender-bending, artistically it's all over the place.
Mildly engaging though it is, Mulan doesn't follow through on its initial promise to fill out a story without broad jokes and cute animals, or to be a Disney cartoon that doesn't look like a Disney cartoon. The animators' funny bone is out of joint with the main story. (The big comic set pieces are the obligatory barracks high jinks of a troop fight and a group bath.) So they throw in a puny yet ambitious dragon named Mushu (played by Eddie Murphy), a supernatural, sassy critter who'd better suit their giddier extravaganzas. Murphy energizes Mushu vocally and temperamentally -- he's a frayed enfant terrible rather than a guardian spirit -- but visually he's thunderously unmemorable. And let's not even talk about Mulan's other helpful little pal, a debilitatingly bland cricket named Cri-Kee; Jiminy is probably rolling over in his grave.
The animators attempt a sophisticated melange of Western and Eastern drawing and animation styles, from the calligraphic lettering of the opening title to the stark, almost woodcut visualization of the Huns, then on to the humorous and sweetly simple look of Mulan's roly-poly dog, Little Brother. But before long, melange turns to hodgepodge. In a typical misplaced homage, Mulan's nearsighted grandmother is made to look and act like Mister Magoo.
The inherent interest of the story, a vital lead performance and a few tingling frissons are what keep the movie bobbing back. Ming-Na Wen brings a plangent urgency to her vocal characterization of the heroine. (Lea Salonga does the singing for her.) And the craftsmen, at their best, seem to take their cue from Wen: A drilling song ("I'll Make a Man Out of You") climaxes a cappella with the frozen image of the unit in midleap; a marching song ("A Girl Worth Fighting For") ends abruptly when the men stumble on a grim military debacle. If the Mulan team had the desire or the ability to sharpen and sustain their edginess, they might have achieved something special.
As a kid, I got a kick out of Tonka but never confused it with the satisfaction I got from seeing a real cavalry-and-Indian movie like the 1950 Broken Arrow. Schoolgirls may get a kick out of Mulan, but I doubt they'll confuse it with the satisfaction they get from a rounded creation like Beauty and the Beast. Girlhood may be powerful in this cartoon feature, but the animation isn't. For any kind of movie to cast a spell, it must have conviction and consistency. In Mulan, the mood keeps getting shattered. The convocations of Mulan's ancestors and spirit guides resemble outtakes from Hercules, complete with postmodern humor such as an American Gothic farm couple popping up in the family's ranks. When the movie sinks to this level of attention-grabbing, you wonder why Disney didn't go all out and call it Moola.
Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. With the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Harvey Fierstein and Eddie Murphy.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.