Cartoon characters are not real, and animated features definitely aren't intended to have a sense of documentary realism. But don't tell that to Walt Disney Pictures officials, and especially producer Pam Coats.
Disney received complaints from American Indian leaders about the treatment of historical characters and American Indian culture in 1995's "Pocahontas." And similarly, the release of Disney's animated "Hercules" musical set off protests and picketing in Greece last year because the film reworked classic Greek mythology in its interpretation of mythical characters.Consequently, studio officials say they are more mindful now of how other cultures are depicted onscreen. That put additional pressure on Coats and her already-harried creative teams, who were busy making the studio's 36th animated film, "Mulan," based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese legend. (The movie opened Friday in theaters nationwide.)
"The studio was looking to do something radically different, and the idea of making this legend into a movie came up," Coats said during a telephone interview from California. "However, the story it's based on is revered in the Asian community, so there's a real need to be as true to the source as possible."
As for the results, Coats said she is quite satisfied.
"Obviously, we've made the additions of original songs and new characters," she said." But I think we've captured the essence of the original story . . . or at least I hope we have."
The movie version of "Mulan" tells of a young woman - the title character - who disguises herself as a man and becomes a soldier in the Imperial Chinese Army so her ailing father will not have to serve. Aided by Mushu, a "guardian dragon," she learns to become a skilled warrior, and eventually participates in the final battle to protect the emperor from the villainous Hun army.
Adding authenticity to the musical adventure is the presence of several veteran Asian-American performers who lend their voices to the animated characters, including B.D. Wong, Gedde Watanabe, James Hong, Soon-Tek Oh, Pat Morita and George Takei.
Actress Ming-Na Wen, who voices Mulan, landed her part not because of dramatic film credits or her comedic television roles, but for the narration she provides at the beginning of the film adaptation of "The Joy Luck Club."
"When we heard Ming-Na doing that voice-over, we knew we had our Mulan. She has a very likable and lovely voice, and those are the qualities we were looking for," Coats said. "Also, it was extremely important that we have an Asian-American actress play her and we couldn't have done better than Ming-Na."
Less obvious was the choice of Eddie Murphy, who provides the voice of Mushu, her tiny but enthusiastic companion.
"We were hoping to get someone like Robin (Williams), who was so great in `Aladdin,' and Eddie has proven he has that kind of comedic talent," she said. "Fortunately he said he was extremely interested in doing an animated film. When we did some test animation, he had a great time showing off."
Coats has similar praise for Donny Osmond, who provides the singing voice of Shang, the army commander who becomes Mulan's love interest.
"Donny's voice was almost a perfect match for (B.D. Wong, who provides the acting voice for Shang), and he wanted to do a movie with us," she said. "He really is a lovely man to work with."
But efforts to make the film as authentic as possible didn't stop with the performers or the story content. "Mulan" features the usual Disney quality animation, but the characters are drawn in an exaggerated manner that recalls the style of Asian cartoons.
Chen-Yi Chang, an animator known for his work on the "Batman" cartoon series, supervised the character designs and spent considerable time researching the period costuming.
"Chen really went above and beyond the call here," Coats said. "Of course, he's loved this story his whole life, so he wanted to make sure we did it right. He was a really handy person to have around."
Though Coats has worked as a production assistant with Disney for nearly a decade, "Mulan" is the first full-length movie produced by the former Utahn. (However, the animated short films she has produced at Disney include 1993's "Trail Mix-Up," starring Roger Rabbit, and "Runaway Brain," a 1995 Mickey Mouse short that was nominated for an Academy Award.)
The film represents the end of her six-year struggle to bring the story of "Mulan" to the screen. "It feels overwhelming, but very gratifying to have the movie done. I know it may sound corny, but it's really been a journey of self-discovery."
Her years in Utah theater, including LDS Church productions, and at Utah State University, prepared Coats to meet the studio's grueling production schedules and face a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
"When Disney has a schedule in mind, they hold you to it, which can be very stressful. But it's no comparison with some of the things that happened in Utah," she said.
"Obviously, all those experiences helped me deal with the pressure."