The media keep asking rhetorically if the X-Files movie will appeal to nonfans of the show, but that isn’t an important question. As far as the market goes, it shouldn’t—if folks won’t tune in to Fox for an hour once a week for free, why would they pay $7.50 for the privilege of seeing what will largely be the same thing, only twice as long?

But ur-calculator and X-Files creator Chris Carter knows that there are all kinds of geeks in the world, and the X-Files movie will appeal to a wide range of them: sci-fi freaks, conspiracy theorists, abductees and wannabes, mystery buffs, and even new romantics. That means that in aesthetic—and the Hollywood version, entertainment—terms, that vast unconverted audience is a good bet for the big-screen X-Files; it is, in impressively numerous ways, a damn fine movie.

You don’t have to be cuddly with the vast and inevitably quirky cast of characters that inhabits the TV X-Files universe to be gripped by the film from its opening moments. (Unlike the Seinfeld finale, director Rob Bowman doesn’t pump the familiar faces’ appearance for a big, wet “awwww” factor; they’re just there, the sad mugs of the Lone Gunmen, the menacingly blank stare of FBI boss Skinner.) The story moves smoothly from showing humanoid innocents interacting with alien predators to a spectacular act of domestic terrorism that is not what it seems (although it does seem to be, and is, in questionable taste). Without giving too much away, let’s say that the conspiracy is not just bigger than we can imagine—isn’t it always?—it’s older.

Our heroes, FBI Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), are of course the renegade officers sensing “something’s wrong” at the bomb site while the unimaginative black-clad drones of the FBI scuttle all over the wrong building like the obedient ants they are—a nice compression of the self-righteous loneliness of the conspiracist in a world of blind rationalism—and of course they get blamed for the ensuing explosion.

The next sound you hear will be “The X-Files are closed,” upon which Mulder and Scully will be forced to go it alone—there’s never any real danger that the pair will either split up or give up, although Duchovny brings a surprisingly tender reading to his line, after being asked what Scully was doing in the wrong building: “She was with me.” Mulder’s vulnerability, not just to all manner of New Age woo-woo but to the romance that is dancing before his eyes, is delicately teased out here. When Scully hard-headedly states, “They’re splitting us up,” he coos disbelievingly, “But they’re the ones who put us together.” Their union is both classic and modern—she cool and unattainable in her gorgeous black suits and ’40s heels; he disheveled, unshaven and emotionally tamped down. It isn’t Carter’s dislike of clichés that keeps them from making the love-jump; it’s his love of tradition—once they fall into bed, they fall out of their postmodern Hepburn-Tracyland.

What follows is an explanation for all the previous aliens-genetic-experimentation-who-is-the-Cancer-Man blather that is both scary and satisfying in a way these things never are—remember that last season of Twin Peaks? There are bees; there is corn; there are cavemen under the snow and beings in outer space; there is a worldwide consortium of powerful men with a plan; there are underground labs and staged disasters. There is Martin Landau, as a scribbler of crank conspiracy rants named Kurtzweil—gotta love those self-educated entrepreneurs—who knows too much and uses the word “drinkie.” There are—need you ask?—black helicopters.

The X-Files is smart, stylish, and cerebral, but also packs plenty of summer punch for the action-thirsty—alien goo, crashing shocks, huge explosions, natural catastrophes. Duchovny and Anderson are just as game as can be, delivering their side-by-side speeches, hers a sheaf of boring statistics, his on “anticipating the unforeseen” and other bugaboo, as if speaking through translators. But the film doesn’t sacrifice the such-as-it-is integrity of the TV show by playing down the hero-as-bug-eyed-prophet angle; in fact, being entrapped in the dizzying logic of a really tight conspiracy theory is comforting. It makes sense of a random, illogical world, and it absolves the individual of responsibility, since the menace comes from so high up that even God is in on it. It’s like a spell in a parallel universe, where everything is almost recognizable, and nonsense becomes sense.

The period of adjustment has been long and financially draining, but finally Disney is getting it right—the feature-length animation arm of the world-dominating company is making the art form genuinely progressive.

Mulan is from an old Chinese poem. How Disney negotiates an exotic source for the homegrown audience is always a worry, especially with precedents like the straining-to-please, PC “Mother Willow” crap of the correct-yet-offensive Pocahontas, and the anti-Arab and offensive Aladdin, which tossed cultural specificities to the wind and went for coarse yuks. But Mulan is relaxed and beautiful, unspooling its engaging story and stunning visuals like a bolt of silk. There is something piquantly Chinese in every frame, but the animators bring a lightness of touch to the proceedings that makes this picturesque world feel familiar.

Fa Mulan (the voice of Ming-Na Wen) is the only child of a once-great warrior who walks with a limp and prays to the ancestors to find his daughter a husband. Typically for a Disney heroine, husband-hunting is the last thing on Mulan’s mind—she cheats during her session with the matchmaker, turning the appointment into a fiasco and coming this close to bringing dishonor to the family. That is probably the most exotic notion in the film, to young American audiences; with admirable insistence, the script reinforces the possibility that family honor and individual expression are not incompatible notions.

When the Huns attack China, Mulan steals her father’s armor and conscription notice and sneaks out to fight in his stead, making just as much of a mess of the army camp as she did of the matchmaker’s tent and alienating the hard, macho soldiers. Back in the home temple, the ancestors come to life and call upon the family guardians to look after her, somehow ending up with the fast-talking little dragon, Mushu (voice of Eddie Murphy), who was de-guardianized for some infraction centuries ago and is gunning to get his status back. With the help of a cricket deemed lucky by everyone but the poor insect himself, Mushu sets out to help Mulan become a great warrior and bring honor to her people.

Mulan contains fewer songs than the usual Disney fare, and the sharp tang of tie-in merchandising never sullies the air. The film seems to exist to entertain audiences and show kids a good time, which is kind of weird—but you get used to it. Mulan is pretty and smart but not such a rollicking babe that you can’t concentrate on her travails, and she needs only one reaction shot to the sight of hunky army captain Li Sheng (voice of B.D. Wong) without his shirt to convey that having everyone think you’re a man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Mulan is very funny, with Murphy’s put-upon dragon in particular keeping up a rapid-fire string of laugh lines wholly within the character’s personality, with none of the cheap, anachronistic grandstanding Robin Williams brought to Aladdin’s overbearing Genie. The combination of hushed, respectful beauty—this is surely the most lovingly drawn Disney feature yet—and raucous, character-driven humor is a powerful one; Mulan demonstrates a new maturity and strength in the disgraced art of film animation.CP

More from WCP