A Girl, a Dragon, and a Good Disguise: Disney Formula at Its Best

Take a feisty heroine and a spunky sidekick; stir in songs, action scenes, and an exotic historical setting. Follow this recipe successfully, and you'll wind up with a stylish cartoon in the Walt Disney tradition - like "Mulan," the studio's first animated feature in years to look like a sure-fire hit.

The title character is a Chinese girl preparing for marriage when life changes: Huns invade the nation, and the emperor decrees every family must send a man to fight the coming battle.

Mulan feels her aging father couldn't survive the ordeal, so she hits on a novel solution - join the army under a false name and fool everyone into thinking she's a warrior. Helping her is Mushu, a diminutive dragon who makes up in sarcasm what he lacks in size.

"Mulan" could be a crucial picture for Disney, which scored lackluster results with recent animations like "Pocahontas" and "Hercules," and faces increasing pressure from competitors like Warner Bros., which released the colorful "Quest for Camelot" last month.

Auguring well for the future, "Mulan" combines strong pictorial appeal with amiable voice-acting by Ming-Na Wen as the heroine and Eddie Murphy as Mushu. While their efforts may not add up to a blockbuster in the "Aladdin" or "Little Mermaid" mold, it will be surprising if "Mulan" doesn't renew Disney's leadership in the animation field.

* Rated G; contains cartoon-style violence.

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