The Disney live-action remakes have been a mixed bag so far. Some of the movies turn out good on their own merits, like Cinderella, and some are money grabs, like The Lion King, and some are just f-cking weird, like Beauty and the Beast (he was SH-TTING in that guy’s MOUTH the WHOLE TIME). Mulan, Disney’s latest live-action reimagining, is perhaps their most successful yet, standing fully on its own from the 1998 cartoon. Without songs, comedy relief animal sidekicks, and a reduced romance, this new Mulan is more like a Wuxia battle epic-lite, Zhang Yimou for beginners with a fairy tale twist.
Niki Caro directs Mulan with assurance, imagination, and a boldness suited to the misfit protagonist at the heart of her tale. Mulan (Liu Yifei) is a confident, active tomboy in her Hun village, where her father, Zhou (Tzi Ma), chafes against the necessity of tempering his daughter’s spirit in order to make her a dutiful child, whose greatest purpose in life is to marry well and bring honor on the family. Mulan is clearly made for more (than this provincial life), but imperial China doesn’t make room for non-conforming women. Indeed, Mulan’s arch-nemesis is a witch called Xianniang (Gong Li), herself an outcast because she did not fit in, either. Mulan carefully balances respect for its source, while still making the point that there are more ways to bring honor to one’s family, and that service to country is, in its way, service to family.
Mulan moves quickly through its setup, in which the men of Mulan’s village are called to fight an invading army led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Since Zhou has no sons to send to the imperial army, he will have to go himself, even though he was grievously injured in the previous war. Thus, Mulan steals her father’s armor and sword and goes herself, assuming the name Hua Jun in the army. It is patently hilarious that no one in the army camp suspects Hua Jun of deception, as not for one moment does Mulan look even remotely masculine, but whatever, this is a fantasy in which smearing dirt on your face makes for a convincing boy. In camp, Hua Jun impresses the commander, Tung (Donnie Yen), and has a repressed crush on fellow soldier Honghui (Yoson An). I wish Mulan HAD played the romance up more, because An and Liu have delightful chemistry, but as is, they settle for meaningful looks and budding respect.
Caro’s film is bright, full of vivid colors and touches of whimsy that emphasize the fairy tale quality of the story, even as many scenes look straight out of a Hong Kong epic. The action is really good, even if Caro’s camera does a little more work than it needs to, and a mid-film battle scene features plenty of Wuxia flourishes and a clever counter-attack by Mulan. One thing kept bugging me, though, and that is Harry Gregson-Williams’ score. Mulan’s theme is appropriately soaring and epic, but something about the villain theme tickled my ear until I realized he wholesale recycled the assassin theme from Prince of Persia.
Mulan is colorful and imaginative enough to capture the fancy of children, and parents ought to appreciate a Disney heroine so focused on pleasing her parents. This is one Disney movie it won’t be a hardship for the whole family to watch together, with enough action and emotional moments to satisfy every taste. And it is truly GORGEOUS to look at, with lavish costumes (from Bina Daigeler) and sets (designed by Grant Major and decorated by Anne Kuljian). Mulan is as much historical epic as it is Disney film, with a heroine full of moxie that feels totally in line with the traditional values of the story, but also the modern thirst for independent women in film. Mulan is an auspicious blend of battle epic and fairy tale that ought to inspire a new generation of would-be warriors.
Mulan was reviewed from a screening link. It is in some theaters, and is available to buy on Disney+ from September 4.