Art beat

13th November 1998 at 00:00
Adults may come away from the latest Disney full-length animated feature with mixed feelings. The characterisation, storytelling and animation in Mulan (on general release) are excellent, and mark a return to form after a rather unimaginative Hunchback of Notre-Dame and a dullish Hercules.

There are several memorable scenes: the sequence of the Hun army charging across a snow-covered ridge in the mountains, then being swamped by an avalanche, is among the most spectacular achievements in animated film. the minor characters are engagingly funny, in particular the dragon,voiced by Eddie Murphy. Mulan herself, a rebellious young woman who dresses up as a man and joins the imperial Chinese army, is a lot more positive and rounded than most female cartoon characters.

However, the Disney product is more than just film. Mulan will be marketed in dozens of ways outside the cinema; and what Disney is marketing is a westernised version of Chinese culture, about as authentic as the Oriental McRib sandwich McDonald's is offering its adult customers alongside the children's Mulan Happy Meal.

There are pleasing visual references to Chinese painting, but they are embellishment. The base on which the film rests, the plot and the characters, address a purely American audience, most obviously in the central character, a Nineties American teenager who can't conform to the feminine ideal that her parents demand of her, but feels equally out of place trying to imitate the laddish behaviour of the young soldiers. Disney's motive is undoubtedly pure - pure profit - and one cannot help feeling there is an element of exploitation in its plundering of foreign cultures.

Disney is shortly to release its second fully computer-animated feature, A Bug's Life (the first was Toy Story). The studio's astonishing success since it came back into full-length animation some 10 years ago has encouraged others to invest in the technique - and bugs are the latest thing. Antz (on general release) is the first film made by UIP and DreamWorks in collaboration with the computer animation studio PDI. Unusually, in Antz the voices play a larger part in establishing character than facial features: the distinctive accents of Woody Allen and Sylvester Stallone head an all-star cast.

This gives the film an old-fashioned feel, despite the state-of-the-art animation. What we have here is one of those Sixties movies, with Woody Allen as the downtrodden worker rebelling against the conformity of a totalitarian world. And now, as then, he ends up by winning the girl (though in this film the girl has Sharon Stone's voice, and a head like a half-chewed toffee). Sylvester Stallone, just as predictably, plays a soldier ant who provides the muscle in a struggle to save the nest from the wicked General Mandible (Gene Hackman). One reason for the appeal of the insect world is that it allows the film-makers to recycle some pretty worn plots in a setting that distracts attention from the cliches.

The 42nd London Film Festival runs through most of November. Cinema has changed enormously since the late 1950s, when this was a small but carefully chosen celebration of mainly European cinema. Most people now watch films on television, and the arrival of digital TV will mean that a wide screen in the living room will be the "natural" outlet for movies.

But there are still unique experiences to be had in the cinema, especially at events such as the festival, where directors often attend screenings of their own films.

The festival opened with the premi re of Mark Herman's Little Voice and ends with Warren Beatty's political satire, Bulworth. Between these, there are hundreds of different films of all kinds at seven venues. If you have not booked in advance, the best option is probably to go along to the National Film Theatre and hope to get into a completely unknown film, preferably from Hong Kong or Iran. Otherwise, head for the "Treasures from the Archive" section.

This year, the films include: a Russian film about Jewish emigration to Palestine (1913); Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story (1948); John Boulting's The Magic Box (1951); Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951); and Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967).

There is also a selection of "Disney's Unseen Treasures", at NFT1 this Sunday (November 15). The early Mickey Mouse cartoons and Pluto's Judgment Day will no doubt look a little unpolished beside Mulan, but these were the films that made Sergei Eisenstein and others hail Disney as a genius of the medium. Information and bookings: 0171 928 3232.

Heather Neill is on holiday

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