Loyal, Brave, True.
Sheesh! Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan has had quite the tough journey. A reimagining of Disney’s beloved 1998 animated film of the same name, which itself is based on the 6th Century Chinese folklore poem The Ballad of Mulan — which sees a woman disguise herself as a man to take the place of her older father in the conscription army — Mulan was set to premiere theatrically in March 2020 before moving dates a couple of times thanks to our old pal COVID-19. It was also tipped to be one of the biggest money-makers of the year. Since then, it’s found a home on Disney’s streaming service Disney+, released on September 4th for a premium fee, which they’re calling Premier Access. Besides its mangled release, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the flick, from its star Yifei Liu supporting police brutality in Hong Kong on the Chinese social media site Weibo, to a more recent development, with the filmmakers thanking the province of Xinjiang, China, where parts of the film were shot, which is known for its human rights abuses.
So, how’s the actual film? Well, it’s clear that this updated take on the ’98 classic has been chiefly made to cater to the Middle Kingdom. You see, Disney have ditched the bulk of the more kiddy aspects from the former film to appeal to the Chinese people (and their box office). The result is an enjoyable feminist take on the classic Disney princess tale that hits most of the beats of the original and replicates them in a stock standard-y way. Luckily, the whole thing is bolstered by a shiny production design by Grant Major, King Kong (2005), (mostly) good performances from the all-Chinese cast, and enough minor changes and surprises to keep viewers interested.
The story begins in rural imperial China with a young Hua Mulan (Crystal Rao) chasing a rouge chicken around her small village, trashing the joint and her family’s reputation in the process. It’s clear here that she possesses some sort of spiritual power that women aren’t supposed to have known as chi — kinda like the Force from the Star Wars films. We then jump some years ahead when Mulan (Yifei Liu) is much older and is hiding her chi abilities, set to bring honor to her family through a forced arranged marriage as a subservient wife. After her meeting with a snotty matchmaker (Pei-Pei Cheng) goes comically awry, the Emperor’s troops enter the region to conscript a male from every family to fight in a dangerous battle against Rouran forces, led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful shape-shifting sorceress Xianniang (Li Gong).
Mulan’s war-veteran hero father Zhou (Tzi Ma) has a shoddy leg but enlists to fight anyway, seeing as he has no sons. But when Mulan realizes that her dad has zero chance of surviving the fight, she takes it upon herself to go in his stead (seeing as she’s gifted with chi), sneaking out of the township in the middle of the night, taking his armor, sword, and conscription papers. When Mulan arrives at the training camp, she pretends to be Zhou’s non-existent son Hua Jun (even though she looks like a woman). Thanks to her chi gifts, she winds up integrating herself into the battalion, led by Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and Sergeant Qiang (Ron Yuan), and befriends a small company of soldiers. Now, not only does Mulan have to survive Khan’s powerful forces, but she must also hide her true identity from the men around her as being discovered would only bring shame and disgrace to her family.
Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, Whale Rider (2002), Mulan kind of goes through the motions, trekking familiar territory whilst putting a contemporary female empowerment #MeToo spin on the proceedings. Fortunately, the film doesn’t talk down to men and is much more mature than its predecessor, tackling themes of equality, stereotypes, gender roles, and following your path, showing young people that you don’t need to fit into a particular mould to join a specific group.
The script penned by screenwriting teams Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, Jurassic World (2015), and newcomers Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek is decent, putting the focus squarely on our heroine and her journey. This ‘straighter’ take on the material also means that writers have decided to toss out all cartoon-y material from the earlier movie. Gone are the great songs from the animated film (I could’ve easily done with a new version of the fantastic ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You,’ even as a battle montage), along with Eddie Murphy’s fast-talking Chinese dragon guardian Mushu, Mulan’s sidekick Cri-Kee, those goofy cross-dressing jokes, and the entire love interest subplot revolving around Captain Li Shang. In their place we have a CGI phoenix that acts as a guide for Mulan, as well as a hapless army recruit named Cricket (Jun Yu) who’s based on the talking insect. Additionally, we’re given a new quasi-romance for Mulan in the form of a fellow soldier named Honghui (Yoson An), even though it kinda feels superfluous to the overall narrative — we still get a comical iteration of that famous bath scene, though.
Seeing as Disney have clearly spared no expense here, Caro and her creative team manage to deliver in terms of razzle-dazzle; Mulan is bursting with exotic vistas shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker, Hidden Figures (2016), intricate costumes by Bina Daigeler, Volver (2006), and beautifully-choreographed battle sequences. With that in mind, Caro does well when it comes to Mulan’s wuxia cinema-type flourishes, delivering all the wire fu and slow-mo action patrons have come to expect from this kind of fantasy kung fu fare, think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) — people run on walls and the like, Mulan dodges arrows while riding horseback, later kicking weapons as they hurl through the air. Caro does, however, falter when it comes to pacing, the film feeling somewhat rushed in parts despite its 115-minute runtime as opposed to the animated’s lean 88.
Performances are a little hit and miss. Yifei Liu, The Assassins (2012), is somewhat flat at first but grows into the role of our brave protagonist throughout the course of the adventure. I found it frustrating, however, that no one ever questions her gender because she’s clearly a woman (um, having a muddy face doesn’t make her look any manlier). Donnie Yen, IP Man (2008), is solid but doesn’t get a lot of screen time as a high-ranking leader of the Imperial Army, Commander Tung. The same goes for Jason Scott Lee, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), who has little characterization outside of being the battle-scarred baddie. Li Gong, Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), manages to impress as the powerful warrior witch Xianniang, the most interesting and complex new addition to the film. Xianniang acts as an antiheroine of sorts and essentially shows Mulan an alternative path that her life could have taken (saying any more would delve into spoiler territory). Poor Jet Li, The One (2001), however, does okay as the wise Emperor of China despite filmmakers foolishly dubbing his voice for the final cut — but hey, at least he gets to fight Jason Scott Lee! Lastly, look out for a brief cameo by Ming-Na Wen, who voiced the titular heroine in the toon.
All up, Mulan is a middle-tier Disney remake — it’s not as good as last year’s Aladdin or Jon Favreau’s excellent The Jungle Book (2016), but much better than The Lion King or 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. Sure, the film’s lavish, colorful production is impressive (and should really be viewed on the biggest screen possible), but I missed the fun musical energy and vigor of Disney’s earlier iteration. Oh, be sure to stick around during the end credits to hear Christina Aguilera perform a cover of her classic hit from the original film ‘Reflection’ as well as a new track ‘Loyal Brave True,’ which echoes some of the messages from the film.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie