“There have been many tales of the great warrior Mulan. But ancestors, this one is mine.” Thus acting legend and perennial Chinese dad Tzi Ma kicks off Mulan, Disney’s sweeping live-action remake of its beloved 1998 animated classic. While recorded in English like the rest of this fully Hollywood-ized blockbuster, had subtitles been needed for Ma’s opening line, the most accurate translation would have read “WE’RE BEGGING YOU, PLEASE DON’T COMPARE THIS TO THE ORIGINAL MOVIE!”.
That bit of imagined peril on Disney’s part may be for naught though as Mulan is good. As good as ye olde animated flick? I could say “No” as this film does boast some issues, but I’m maybe the wrong person to answer that question. In any other year, one of the CH writers who had actually watched the animated version more than once over two decades ago would have penned this review to properly judge whether the Mouse House’s latest live-action effort lives up to its Oscar-nominated forebear. But thanks to an acute case of 2020, I was all that was available for this assignment. I know my Mushu from my Matchmaker though, so I can get by.
Only one of those mentioned characters actually appears in this rousing-but-flawed update on the Ballad of Mulan, the romantic Chinese myth to which director Niki Caro and her writing team have turned to with scholarly fervour. In fact, this is remarkably less of a live-action remake of a kids cartoon than it is a sweeping adaptation of a dramatic 4th-century wuxia epic. There are no Eddie Murphy-voiced dragons, nobody’s being made into a man via choreographed song and dance numbers. What we do have is breathtaking visual splendour, a stirring orchestral score (taking cues from the original’s songs), and plenty of dancerly martial arts. Maybe I’m more qualified than I thought.
Liu Yifei (somehow 33-years old in real life despite her youthful looks here) brings to life Hua Mulan, a boisterous young woman possessed of exceptional Chi. As her wounded war hero father Zhou (Ma) explains, Chi is “the boundless energy of life itself.” Unlike her only other sibling, reserved younger sister Xiu (Xana Tang), Mulan is positively overflowing with the stuff, enhancing her every emotion and preternatural feats of martial prowess. This is much to the dismay of fussing mother Li (Rosalind Chao) who worries that Mulan’s uncontainable spirit will dash her chances of being matched up with a good husband one day. “Chi is for warriors, not daughters”, Mulan is chided.
Warriors are what the Emperor (a strangely muted Jet Li) is in need of though when a force of Rouran nomadic raiders start spreading murderous chaos along the Silk Road. At their head is Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a revenge-driven baddie’s baddie, complete with malevolent facial hair and a collection of scars that I’m sure spell out the words “evil villain” in the right light. Subtle in characterization, he is not. At his side, and the key to his success, is Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shapeshifting witch who is kept subservient – despite her power – simply because of how society has shunned her for her gifts.
In response to Khan’s reign of terror, the Emperor has decreed that a man from every family is to be conscripted. Knowing that her dutiful-but-hobbled father will not survive another bout of military service for his country though, Mulan absconds with his armour, his conscription letter, and the family heirloom sword. Disguising herself as a young man, the newly dubbed “Hua Jun” enlists as her family’s recruit, much to the pride of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), her new commanding officer and her father’s old war buddy. Cue Mulan’s amusingly stressful attempts at keeping up the facade of Hua Jun amongst her new squadmates, especially the as-handsome-as-he-is-skilled recruit Chen Hongui (Yoson An) who finds an unexpected ass-kicking equal on the training ground in the diminutive new guy who suspiciously never showers with the rest of the men resulting in a running joke of body stench.
In fact, it’s the joshing between Mulan/Jun and her compatriots as they are transformed from bumbling novices to effective warriors that provides some of the movie’s few moments of levity. Caro and co play this one pretty serious and dramatic for the most part, which admittedly does rob it of some potential charm in places. The lack of wisecracking animal sidekicks become even more pronounced thanks to the new addition of a phoenix which is supposed to be a familial spirit guide throughout Mulan’s journey, but ends up feeling like an ineffectual CGI screensaver.
The dud of that phoenix is balanced out by Caro’s fantastic staging of grand wuxia battles, her camera flipping and spinning through the action with the same swooping gravity-defying prowess of combatants on-screen. The action is robbed a fraction of its oomph though by keeping things a noticeably bloodless PG-13. It’s a Disney family film though, so what can you do?
And those families will be here to see Mulan herself… who is unfortunately slightly problematic. Turning the character from the plucky normal girl that she was in the animated film, who persevered over gender prejudice through nothing but sheer courage and force of will, into a super-kung-fu-powered heroine, does undercut her arc of personal growth and the very theme at the heart of this film. It also doesn’t help that said arc feels a little rushed and heavy-handed in places. Instead, it’s Li’s witchy Xian who gets the more nuanced and compelling character work – the best in the film, in fact. Her mirrored story helps to propel Mulan’s.
You can’t fault Yifei for this misbalance though. Her Mulan is a simmering blend of emotion, action, and grace. Even when not flying through the air with slickly-choreographed balletic wire-fu fisticuffs, she’s hard to look away from. Some of her co-stars occasionally fumble in their thespian deliveries – not the effortlessly charming An though – but Yifei nails it. Well, as well as she can when using the laughably see-through disguise of Jun which seemed a lot more believable when in animated form.
And speaking of unbelievable, Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker create eye-popping masterpieces of light and colour with every scene here. Coupled with a level of costume and production design opulence that justifies every cent of the film’s $200 million price tag, this is easily one of the most visually spectacular films of the year. Unfortunately, it’s in a year in which a large percentage of the world will be viewing this at home on Disney+ instead of the expansive IMAX real estate that this gorgeous artistry deserves. Disney can’t be too happy about that one.
And right back at them since there are going to be a lot of people not happy with Disney simply because it’s hard to divorce this film’s artistic achievements from its political pitfalls. While ensuring an appropriately all-Chinese cast instead of the yikes-worthy mixed blend of ethnicities in the first film is one of several great steps, there have been some other questionable decisions in the film’s production. Most head-scratchingly is a very problematic mid-credits Chinese government shout-out that will definitely anger and potentially drive away audience members. And that’s a pity because Mulan is that rare of Disney live-action remakes that doesn’t feel like a slavish shot-by-shot ripoff of the original, too afraid to have its own voice. Like its namesake mythological heroine leaping into battle, Mulan manages to fly over its flaws and kick some butt.
Last Updated: September 11, 2020