Jettisoning the saccharine cutesiness, in-jokery and overt merchandising opportunities of recent Disney outings, Mulan serves up the sort of classic entertainment the Magic Kingdom was built on: stunning animation, sharply defined characters, a smattering of catchy tunes all seamlessly woven into a simple, powerfully told yarn. Ironically, by harking back to its semi-serious dramatic roots, the studio's 36th feature length cartoon may suggest the future for its animated output.
Based on traditional Chinese legend, Mulan sees the eponymous teen rebel, unable to fulfil servile wifely duties, attempt to save familial blushes by dressing as a man and becoming a war hero in the battle against the Hun. Aided by obligatory (and completely superfluous) comic sidekicks - a cricket and a jive talkin' dragon (Murphy, desperately aspiring to Robin Williams' Aladdin genie) - our plucky heroine hooks up with the motley ranks of the Imperial Garrison: cue basic army training (including likeable comedy song I'll Make A Man Out Of You), Mulan's attraction to dashing Captain Shang and some stunningly staged skirmishes with the bad guys - all the while Mulan trying to keep her female identity secret.
While brimming over with 90s concerns - raising issues of female empowerment, women in the military, cross-dressing - Mulan rarely loses sight of its timeless folklore quality. Ancient China is beautifully evoked and the film throws up compelling dramatic beats - the opening attack on the Great Wall Of China, Mulan donning her father's armour, the final showdown - that linger long in the memory. Best of all, though, is a Hun stampede down the slopes of a snowy mountain, fantastically energised by swooping camera work, that rivals the great David Lean in its exhilarating, epic sweep.
The four songs, if not instantly memorable, are pleasant, well staged diversions that embellish rather than intrude on the storytelling. Among the strongest heroines in Walt's cartoon canon, Mulan's engaging mixture of vulnerability and derring-do becomes incredibly easy to root for and, in Hun leader Shan-Yu, Disney have created their scariest villain for years. Add the contagious sense of adventure, light sprinkling of humour and a genuinely uplifting resolution and Mulan emerges as an unadulterated treat.