Look past the controversies of how Disney released MULAN on their streaming service rather than in theaters, and star Liu Yifei’s political statements about Hong Kong, to concentrate on the actual movie. What you’ll find is an exceptionally well-done actioner with a lot to say about emancipation, prejudice, and fighting the good fight. You’ll also discover one of Disney’s very best adaptations of their animated classics, a re-telling wise enough to keep the best parts of its predecessor while largely making the film feel very much its own achievement.
In fact, the filmmakers weren’t precious at all about truly re-imagining the film, rendering it with more of a sense of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON than in the Disney style of animation. Gone are the musical numbers, various cutesy critters, and the dragon side-kick character Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy three years before he did Donkey in SHREK). What remains from the original 1998 film are the strong themes about loyalty, bravery, and being true to oneself, as well as the exciting battle sequences, and the unique take on what constitutes a Disney heroine.
Hua Mulan wasn’t a princess in that first film, nor in real life. Rather, she was a young woman trying to break out of the typical roles offered her during the feudal China of the Tang Dynasty. She’s struggling with such stakes in this 2020 version as well, only now her political convictions come through even stronger due to the film being told with a human cast and this era of too many women in power being dismissed as “nasty women.” Being strong, intelligent, and principled has never been so threatening to amoral men as it is during this election season, a perfect time for Mulan to cut such sexist patriarchy down to size.
In order for Mulan to join ‘the boys club’ in the film – the army fighting on behalf of the Emperor – she must pretend to be a man. To combat marauding outsiders, a son from each family across the land is being drafted into service. Mulan’s family consists of two daughters, so the elder father (the estimable character actor Tzi Ma), already crippled from an old war wound, is tasked with answering the call. Mulan defies tradition and honor, disguising herself as a man to join up for duty and take her papa’s place.
At the training camp, she matches skills and wits with the boys, besting them in most instances. She even bonds with the other standout recruit, the handsome and ambitious Chen Honghui (Yoson An). Both fighters are characterized by their soldiering skills, not to mention their drive to succeed. Mulan views him as a potential love interest too, though the film’s B story isn’t given nearly as much time this go-round as you’d expect.
One of the smarter things that director Niki Caro and her screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin do in this version is to not overplay Mulan’s romantic leanings. Instead, they focus on Mulan’s relationships with the other characters surrounding her just as much, including Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and most effectively, the enemy witch Xian Lang (Gong Li). Lang may be a baddie, a conjurer who can cast spells, morph into animals, and thwart the best battle plans, but she’s no heinous ghoul. Instead, she’s all but burnt out, beaten down by her own struggles within the world of men, a woman who’s both envious and protective of the young, female soldier going through similar skirmishes.
Amongst a strong cast and Liu’s prowess in the lead, Gong is the standout performance, bringing great gravitas to her part. She’s no cliched Disney hag here either, despite some snaggled fingernails that scratch and claw at various times in the story. Instead, her witch is all-too-recognizably human.
There are a dozen others in supporting roles who make vivid impressions, and Caro really spends time showing Mulan’s specific interactions with each of them. That’s all the more surprising, given that stars like Yen and Jet Li as the Emperor are primarily known for being martial arts movie stars. They get a chance to strut their stuff onscreen here too but excel at the dialogue and character interactions just as much.
Caro shoots all the action clearly and economically, and never glosses over missing coverage via jacked-up editing. There’s a LORD OF THE RINGS style of grandeur and intimacy to each set-piece. Cinematographer Mandy Walker ensures geography is king when it comes to the battle sequences, showing the armies in the context of one another, as well as their landscapes. David Coulson’s editing never rushes shots, choosing instead to hang on character reactions a beat longer than you’d expect to give more time to each performance. In its way, this is actually an actor’s action picture.
MULAN does have some flaws. The costumes are too colorful and pristine, some scenes are overlit, and, occasionally, Harry Gregson-Williams’ musical cues are rather on-the-nose. (He’s a terrific composer, but I did prefer the original animated movie’s score by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith). The special effects budget doesn’t quite match that of an Avengers movie either, yet all in all, this is one very-well produced adventure with so much location work, it’s breathtaking.
Many may dislike the decision, but I think Disney was rather shrewd to release MULAN on VOD as they’ve done. The grandeur and scope shine through no matter what the platform, the same with the intimacy. And for those families that fear venturing back into the theater during the pandemic, Disney has done their best to make this winning remake accessible. I hope this new MULAN reaches the large audience it deserves.