Mulan (United States/Hong Kong, 2020)

September 03, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mulan Poster

If compared to the recent batch of high-profile live action remakes of animated classics, Mulan is a unique case. When it comes to baggage, it has the lightest load. Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King all made more than $200M during their domestic runs (adjusted for inflation, those totals go up considerably).  Beauty & the Beast was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and The Lion King was for many years the highest grossing animated film of all-time. Mulan, on the other hand, was one of the last members of Disney’s Second Golden Age and struggled to top $100M (domestic). Although better than its immediate predecessors, Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and its successor, Tarzan, its memory and legacy have never been protected by Disney the way that “The Big Four” (the fourth member being The Little Mermaid) have been.

This more lenient attitude toward the original 1998 film has allowed director Niki Caro to be less reverent in her approach. The result is satisfyingly fresh. 2020’s Mulan follows the same general trajectory as its predecessor but numerous changes – some small, some large – have given it a unique identity. It is the first of the Disney remakes to fully justify its existence. Gone are the musical numbers (although the instrumental score pays homage to them) and the most fantastical elements (the talking dragon and the voiceless cricket). The tone has been darkened, shedding some its levity. Characters have been removed, added, and adjusted.

Mulan is a strong, modern take on an ancient Chinese legend. It’s a Valentine to female empowerment set in an age when the role of the woman was to honor the family by having babies. Despite the PG-13 rating (the movie doesn’t skimp on the consequences of battle), the production is appropriate family viewing for all but the smallest of children. Caro strives to craft an epic but falls just short. The central battle sequence is too perfunctory to generate the impact it could have. In terms of advancing the narrative, it does the job, but there’s a sense of missed opportunity. Maybe it’s just a case of so many similar war scenes in recent productions (both on TV and in movies) having been more immersive.

Mulan transpires in feudal China. When an army of invaders, led by the Rouran warrior Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), attacks, the Emperor (Jet Li), must mobilize an army to repel the encroachers. To do this, he conscripts one man from every family across the land. This represents a hardship for the household of Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), an honored war veteran who must fight despite a crippling leg injury. His eldest daughter, Mulan (Liu Yifei), impulsively takes his sword and armor and steals away during the night to usurp his place. Posing as a boy, she enlists under the command of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and proves her mettle to both the leaders of the Imperial army and her fellow recruit, Chen Honghui (Yonson An). When the armies clash, Mulan is presented with an opportunity that may be undone by Xian Lang (Gong Li), the shapeshifting witch sidekick of Bori Khan, who offers her adversary a tantalizing alternative to her life of pretense.

The film is most notable for its ethnically appropriate casting. No attempt has been made to shoehorn a Caucasian/European actor into the tapestry. The lead actress, Chinese-American Liu Yifei isn’t going to win an Oscar for her performance but what she lacks in depth she more than makes up for with her ferocity and physicality. The movie is replete with martial arts action scenes (to the extent that my colleague Sohaib Awan dubbed it “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Lite” and, indeed, an unavailable Ang Lee was the producers’ first choice as director) and Liu handles them all with grace. It’s welcome to see Jet Li, despite being 57 years old, showing a few moves.

As befits an expensive movie mounted with the intention of captivating both Chinese and American audiences (Disney had its gaze fixed Eastward when it moved forward with the project), Mulan is consistently gorgeous. Although many of the “unrealistic” elements evident in the animated project have been removed, the film nevertheless retains the feel of a fantasy adventure. Although the movie loses some aspect of its intended spectacle on the small screen (it was originally intended for theatrical distribution; the 2020 coronavirus pandemic resulted its being released domestically to the Disney+ streaming platform), it remains a compelling and engaging adventure that represents not only an effective retelling of the 1998 film but arguably the best of the studio’s animated-to-live action reconstructions.

Mulan (United States/Hong Kong, 2020)

Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yonson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao
Home Release Date: 2020-11-10
Screenplay: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Elizabeth Martin & Lauren Hynek
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2020-09-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: