Mulan is exquisite and packed with action, destined to become a Disney classic, because it tells the tale of a fierce female hero. Does it have the depth of emotion of other Disney favorites?
New Zealand film director, Niki Caro, has created an epic film, with meticulously choreographed stunts and battle scenes shot with precision on both geometrically defined and lush locations. Australian cinematographer, Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) uses all the angles which Carol shows in rapid succession to show Mulan’s extraordinary prowess as a warrior.
Caro makes Mulan a driven young woman who is eminently relatable. Yifei Liu’s portrayal of Mulan succeeds because she is shown as both beautiful and strong, powerful still vulnerable. But at the same time, it also depicts her respectful relationship to her father as being traditional and eventually, progressive. Will she be able to follow the inscriptions of being loyal, brave and true on her father’s sword?
This story is based on legendary versions of Mulan about young girls who turned warriors. “The Ballad of Mulan” has been traced to the Northern Dynasties of China from 386 to 581 AD. There have been several versions in addition to Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan. But instead of being voiced by big name actors who were not all Asian, this film has an all Asian cast.
Liu as Mulan makes for a good role model for young girls. She trained for 3 months, 7 hours a day to get the moves right for the action scenes. But she was already a quadruple threat who beat out 1,000 other young actresses who auditioned for the role. This accomplished martial artist, already knew how to wield a sword, ride a horse, and she sings “Reflection,” Disney’s signature Mulan song in Chinese over the end credits.
Magic plays a central role. Characters, both good and evil possess “Qi” (Chee), believed to be a vital element forming part of any living entity. Qi means “air” but can also be thought to be “material energy, life force”, or “energy flow.” Mulan shows right from the first entertaining scene of her as a child on a chicken-chase through her village and leaping fearlessly over roofs that she possesses special powers. Her father, honored warrior Zhou (Tzi Ma), recognizes that the Qi is strong in her. When the Emperor decrees a male from each family must serve in his army to defend the kingdom, Mulan steals her father’s sword and armor and pretends to be a boy to serve in his place.
Mulan is challenged by Xianniang ((Li Gong) who recognizes the young woman as force equal to hers. Xinniang had good intentions as a young girl, but after being rejected and discounted her whole life, just for being a woman, she turned bitter. Referred to as a witch, she is able to shape shift, and transform to attack as a predatory bird. This is where the script really stands out in giving us a feminist take on how Mulan and Xianniang are not all that different. They are both fighting to be recognized for themselves.
But Xianniang uses her power in her alliance with the evil Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee, The Jungle Book, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) whose back-story explains wanting revenge on the Emperor, (Jet Li, Forbidden Kingdom). Lee plays a frightening and formidable villain well who will stop at nothing to avenge his family.
The power of the movie is that the script keeps the audience enthralled and involved. Usually, epic action movies lose their mojo during the non-battle sequences, but Mulan’s journey pretending to be a man, learning how to be a warrior and the interactions with her fellow soldiers never lag.
Mulan’s her rapid transformation from a dutiful, obedient daughter forging a new path of strength and leadership as a full-fledged member of the battalion moves a little too quickly. We do think there could have been more of a light, Disney touch interacting with her “fellow” soldiers. There isn’t much comedy in this film. It’s all very serious.
But the battle scenes really pay off delivering abundant thrills. Dozens of warriors in colorful, especially red, detailed costumes with swords, spears and arrows flying everywhere make for epic battles. No worries about it getting too brutal for kids. In true Disney style, even though there is death and destruction, there is a minimum of blood seen on the screen. It’s certainly more tame than many video games.
Disney films usually bring a tear to your eye and Mulan comes close with it’s emphasis on family. Director Niki Caro has translated the animated Mulan well into an elegant, exciting and well executed live action version. This is a female centric film, both in front and behind the camera. There’s plenty of “she” to go alongside the Disney “Qi.”
Walt Disney Studio Pictures 1 hour 55 minutes PG-13
Available on Disney+
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