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Animated Heroines Finally Get in Step With the Times

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One reason for the success of Disney’s “Mulan,” which opened strongly last Friday, is the portrayal of the title character, the girl who puts on her father’s armor and takes his place in the Imperial Chinese Army. Mulan is the first Asian heroine in an American animated feature, and her character represents a new way of depicting women in animation. Capable and intelligent, if somewhat maladroit, she’s a welcome departure from the spunky girls and increasingly snide women in recent features.

Unlike her animated predecessors, Mulan is not a restless girl out to kick over the traces and choose her own husband: She’d like to stay within the traces, but they don’t fit. Mulan loves her parents and tries to do what they expect, but fails. She submits to an interview with a matchmaker, and when her klutziness turns the session into a humiliating disaster, she hides from her father’s gaze in shame--an emotion no previous Disney heroine experienced.

Mulan runs away, not because she wants to see “what’s beyond the river bend” or to become part of someone else’s world, but to save her father’s life. Every family must send one man to the Emperor’s army to fight Shan Yu’s invading Huns. Partially incapacitated by an old wound, he faces certain death if he goes to war. Mulan resolves to take his place. The wordless sequence in which she cuts off her hair and dons her father’s armor showcases the power of pantomime in animation.

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On her own, Mulan employs her intelligence and initiates action. She figures out how to use the weighted straps to climb a pole in the training camp, and applies the knowledge during a later battle. She defeats the evil Shan Yu, not once, but twice. In disguise as the soldier Ping, she sets off the avalanche that sweeps away the Hun army; as Mulan, she foils his attempt to kidnap the Emperor.

Unlike the campy bad guys in many recent animated features, Shan Yu is an icy, powerful presence, which gives his defeat at her hands a greater impact. Captain Shang is an excellent commander, but Mulan doesn’t need him to come to her rescue. Although she’s impressed when he takes off his shirt during training exercises, their nascent romance is built on hard-won trust and respect rather than good looks.

Mulan’s unpretentious competence represents a break with six decades of American animation. The heroine of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) was one of the first genuinely feminine animated characters. (Most early cartoon women were little more than males in skirts and high heels.)

But Snow White is very much “The Little Princess": Both childish and childlike, she belongs to the era when Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin and the young Judy Garland were stars. She is also an extremely passive character, content to wait for the prince to find her. In recent years, “Some Day My Prince Will Come” has been damned by some as an anti-feminist anthem.

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“Snow White” initiated a line of gentle animated heroines who bear their problems patiently and wait to marry the prince of their dreams. “Cinderella” (1950) is more mature and more appealing, but she does nothing to free herself from her tyrannical stepmother, nor does she make any effort to find the prince after leaving the ball. At 16, the lovely Princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) is eager to fall in love, but all she does is dream about it. The Disney artists transformed Perrault’s vision of an ageless beauty slumbering in an enchanted wood--the real title of the story is “The Beauty of the Sleeping Forest” (“La Belle au Bois Dormant”)--into the sort of teenage romance Ann-Margret or Sandra Dee might have played in live action.

When Ariel kicked up her fins in “The Little Mermaid” (1989), she ushered in an era of spunky heroines. Like her, Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), Princess Jasmine in “Aladdin” (1992) and the title character in “Pocahontas” (1995) chaffed at the restrictions imposed on them. They sought to break the bonds of convention and marry whom they wanted. Ariel’s freshness and enthusiasm made her one of the studio’s most popular characters. Belle falling in love with the gentle heart hidden within Beast’s baleful exterior rather than a handsome face was something genuinely new in animation. Jasmine is something of a poor little rich girl: She likes being a princess but wants to choose her prince. Pocahontas argues for ecological sanity and prevents a war between her people and the British settlers, but she loves John Smith rather than Kocoum. All four heroines essentially want the same thing.

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The perky, “Oh, Daddy, you don’t understand” heroine has not been restricted to Disney films. Kayley in Warner Bros.’ ill-conceived “The Quest for Camelot” is determinedly spunky, if none too bright. An incessantly chattering tomboy, she wants to be a knight, but after declaring her ambition to rescue damsels in distress, she asks, “What’s a damsel?” The villainous Ruber is too hysterical to seem like much of a threat, and Kayley merely witnesses his downfall; she doesn’t engineer it.

The heroine of Don Bluth’s recent “Anastasia” is almost as spunky as Kayley, but marginally brighter. Suffering from amnesia (for more than a decade), she wants to find out who she really is. As the willing pawn of the fortune-hunters Dimitri and Vladimir, she poses as the lost Romanoff princess. When her memory is finally restored, she leaves her grandmother--the only member of her family she seems to remember--to marry Dimitri. Her confrontation with Rasputin is too incongruous to have much effect.

Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996) makes snide cracks but seems far less capable than she’s supposed to be. When she mistakenly assumes Phoebus has trapped her inside the cathedral, she sticks out her lower lip like a 5-year-old who’s been told to finish her Brussels sprouts. Unlike Belle, Esmeralda doesn’t give the impression that she sees beyond Quasimodo’s ugliness; she merely seems unaware of it, a problem aggravated by Demi Moore’s vapid vocal performance. Her fights with the guards in “Hunchback” are played for comedy, with none of the sense of real danger that characterizes Mulan’s battles with Shan Yu.

Megara in last year’s “Hercules” ranks as the least likable heroine in Disney history. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements said they wanted to re-create the flavor of an old Barbara Stanwyck-Gary Cooper movie, but they missed one essential element. Stanwyck could be as tough as nails, but she called her own shots; Meg is a puppet, and Hades pulls her strings. Despite her declaration that she’s “a big, tough girl,” Hercules has to rescue her from a lusty centaur and, ultimately, Hades. Her snotty comments and odd inflections sound more like Peg Bundy on “Married . . . With Children” than Ariel or Belle, and it’s hardly surprising viewers didn’t warm to her.

The only heroine to rival Mulan’s independence is the title character of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke,” one of the top-grossing films in Japanese history; Miramax will release a dubbed version in the U.S. next spring. Arguably the most interesting writer-director working in animation in Japan, Miyazaki ignores the restrictions Americans place on the medium.

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An orphan raised by wolves to be the guardian of a semi-enchanted forest, Mononoke is fiery, self-possessed and strong-willed. She leads the wolves into battle and chooses to remain in her forest realm rather than marry the heroic Ashitaka, despite their attraction. She remains true to her nature, as Mulan remains true to hers.

These two very different heroines suggest that at long last, women in animated features can be intelligent, independent and resourceful--and aspire to something more than marriage to a prince. At the end of “Mulan,” the Emperor broadly hints to Shang that you don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.

Audiences agree.


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