Movie review: Disney’s marvelous ‘Mulan’ remake leaves the original animated film on the drawing board
In their live-action remake of “Mulan,” the folks at Disney have omitted many ingredients from the animated 1998 original. But that’s fine because of what they’ve added to it. The significance of those omissions and additions is a reason to celebrate. The new version, in areas of writing, directing, and acting, leaves its much-loved predecessor in the dust.
Though I’m an ardent fan of animation, and nobody does it better than Disney, nothing can take the place of a movie featuring real live people in actual settings.
Is a suspicion of disbelief still necessary to get into “Mulan?” Of course. It’s an action-adventure story with hints of fantasy, myth, and magic, and plenty of dazzling visual effects support and stunt choreography. And it’s a great movie!
The grand scheme of both films tells of a time when marauding Huns launched attacks on the Chinese Empire and how the Empire attempted to survive. The story here begins in a small walled village where young Mulan (Crystal Rao), to the chagrin of her concerned parents, is displaying all the traits of a tomboy, rather than thinking about the tradition of honoring her family by growing up to be someone’s wife.
Relax. Things change. You’ll find that if you’ve come to this movie looking for a thoughtful, honest, entertaining and contemporary message about female empowerment, you’ve made the right choice.
By the time she’s a teenager, Mulan (now Yifei Liu) has reluctantly and glumly given in to her parents’ wishes, and is brought to a matchmaker - bad idea - resulting in some of the film’s best comic moments. But beyond the laughs, there’s drama and danger emanating from multitudes of men in black, on horseback - here called the Rouran, not the Huns - attacking garrisons all over the land, leading the emperor (Jet Li) to call for a male member from every family to join the army and fight back.
But Mulan’s parents have no sons, only two daughters, and her father (Tzi Ma), still feeling wounds from a previous war, steps forward to enlist. But it’s Mulan who, under cover of night, steals his sword, armor, and horse, ties her long hair up with hopes of passing as a man, and rides off to join the Fifth Battalion of His Majesty’s Imperial Army. She ignores tradition, and takes charge of her life.
There’s your central story. There’s plenty of stuff from the animated film here, but the reasons this one is so much better are manifold.
Mulan has no annoying sidekicks, as she previously did with a squeaking Cricket and Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking little dragon (instead, a voiceless and graceful phoenix has a few subtle appearances), and there are only mentions - no screen time - of chattering mystical ancestors. Thankfully, there are no middling songs breaking up the flow of the movie, although a couple are saved for the end credits.
The best addition this time around is the malevolent and frightening female warrior Xianniang (Li Gong), an accomplice to the villainous Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). He’s a big, angry brute, but she’s a far more skilled fighter, and has the ability to turn into a hawk (another reference to the first film). She also happens to be both a witch and the most complex character here, one with a revealing backstory.
Boasting a compelling lead performance by Yifei Liu, a powerful and enthralling one from Li Gong, and terrific supporting roles by Tzi Ma and by Yoson An as the soldier Honghui, the film easily and regularly switches from being funny to tense to extremely dark. Production design is breathtaking, especially when visiting the glorious Imperial City, and battle sequences are spectacularly choreographed, photographed, and edited. It even has a one-on-one James Bond-like climax of a fight scene.
Warning to parents of very young children: “Mulan” contains multiple action scenes of intense, but bloodless, violence. This is, after all, a story about war. But it’s much more about the physical and emotional and spiritual growth of Mulan as a noble warrior and, to a greater degree, as a person.
“Mulan” premieres on Disney+ on Sept. 4 at a cost of $29.99.
Ed Symkus can be reach3d at email@example.com.
Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek; directed by Niki Caro
With Yifei Liu, Yoson An, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Tzi Ma