Disney turned East seeking inspiration and found it in Mulan, a thoughtful coming-of-age adventure story about a brave and clever daughter risking her life to save her ailing father in Imperial China. Having fun with the comic possibilities of cross-dressing and gender confusions, this beautifully animated feature places its title character in armor and eventually into the thick of battle, with the stakes no less than the fate of her country. Based on a popular Chinese legend (similar to that of Joan of Arc, but with a kinder conclusion), Mulan is that rarity in any patriarchal culture, a genuine heroine celebrated for breaking the conventions of her sex.

Mulan tries to honor her family the traditional way, letting her mother and grandmother powder her face white and dress her like a China doll in preparation for her interview with the matchmaker, but she utterly fails to please the pompous power broker due to the unintentional interference of her 'good luck' cricket (a close, though mute, cousin to Jimminy). Presented in song with amusing lyrics and overtones of Gigi, this comedy of errors evolves into fairly serious drama. Mulan is deeply ashamed at her failure to bring honor to her family in the only way her society deems possible.

She discovers, however, that her father still believes in her. Beneath the gentle canopy of a cherry blossom tree, he tells her that 'the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.' In this one scene, directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft poignantly establish the powerful bond between the dutiful but independent-minded daughter and her conventional but compassionate, aged father.

When Mulan learns that the Emperor is demanding one male volunteer from every family to fight the Hun invaders, she secretly cuts her hair, dons her father's armor, takes his sword and rides off in his place. Dramatically staged without dialogue, this is the film's most stirring sequence.

That's where Eddie Murphy comes in, as the voice of Mushu, Mulan's diminutive, streetwise, would-be guardian dragon. Though less witty than Robin Williams in Aladdin, Murphy breathes some edgy, contemporary humor into his toon with attitude. In a wonderfully funny meeting of Mulan's ancestral spirits, the demoted Mushu is sent to notify a 'real' guardian dragon to protect the inexperienced young warrior. But Mushu seizes the opportunity to prove himself by attempting to make Mulan a war hero. Though romance is secondary in the story, Mulan does fall in love with her hunky commanding officer, Captain Shang, who nearly drops his slender recruit until he/she uses her intelligence to complete a daunting task, in a G.I. Jane moment.

As usual, Disney animators succeed in creating a stylishly scary villain-in this case, the monolithic, square-faced Hun leader Shan-Yu, whose yellow eyes gleam with hate. Mulan, with her grace under fire, prevails against this seemingly invincible enemy, but not without some interesting setbacks, including her rejection by Shang and her three army buddies-Ling, Chien Po and Yao-after they find out that 'she' is a woman.

Soon after Mulan enlists, there's a Yentl-like scene in which she is bathing in a pond, only to be joined by this trio of boisterous cohorts. Although she deftly makes her getaway before blowing her cover, it makes for some wry comic suspense. Late in the film, the roles are reversed, as Ling, Chien Po and Yao discover that cross-dressing can serve their martial purposes as well.

With its striking computer-assisted visuals, such as the nearly 3D Great Wall of China that opens the film, and the massive attack of the Huns that recalls the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, Mulan sets new standards in animation. But it is in the subtlety of its characters' 'acting' that Mulan excels. As has been noted in the past, Disney's cartoon characters show more vitality than many flesh-and-blood actors in non-animated films, and Mulan's are no exception.

But, of course, actors invest these character with life, and all of Mulan's voices do their drawings proud. Ming-Na Wen lends Mulan vulnerability and grit, and Lea Salonga provides as lovely a singing voice for her as she did for Princess Jasmine in Aladdin. B.D. Wong (Seven Years in Tibet) as Shang and Donny Osmond as his singing voice team up to make one virile but multi-faceted drill sergeant. Harvey Fierstein's inimitable gravely voice adds character to the macho, pint-sized Yao, and Miguel Ferrer (recently of television's 'Lateline') fuels Shan-Yu's villainy.

While Stevie Wonder and 98% let you leave the theatre buoyed by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel's 'True to Your Heart,' the other Wilder/Zippel songs in Mulan are less memorable. Veteran Jerry Goldsmith's score, however, adds urgency and emotion to the narrative.

As the Emperor (Pat Morita) tells Shang after Mulan rides back to her family, 'You don't meet a girl like that every dynasty.' He's right.

--Wendy Weinstein