Review by C,J, Bunce
With a brief pandemic year appearance in theaters that only netted box office receipts that were a third of the film’s costs, followed by a high-cost home release via Disney, at last Mulan has made it to the masses via home streaming platforms. The welcome result: one of the best Disney live-action films in a long stream of remakes of classic Disney tales, and a truly inspiring story of heroism and girl power. Performances by a top-notch cast deliver iconic, compelling characters, led by young actress Yifei Liu, director Niki Caro, and an elaborate production that will take audiences back 1,500 years to medieval China. The effort delivers a strong message and a folk tale adaptation without a hitch, a film of sprawling scenery, martial arts action, and favorite Asian actors providing memorable performances.
Mulan is a story of personal responsibility, duty, and honor. Brave. Loyal. True–As etched on her father’s sword. We’ve seen Disney going “back to the well” as routine, with a host of live-action remakes of animated movies from the “vaults,” Aladdin, Cinderella, The Jungle Book (twice), and Pete’s Dragon, with Beauty and the Beast, Lady and the Tramp, the second take on The Jungle Book, The Lion King and two Maleficents. Utilizing Grant Major, the production designer of The Lord of the Rings movies, Disney has upped the ante for Mulan. Based not on the animated movie but on The Ballad of Mulan, a legend of a young heroine who posed as a boy to fight for her people (with influences from Chinese stories like Jin Yong’s heroine Huang Rong in Legends of the Condor Heroes), the live-action Mulan replaces all the silly, obligatory Disney cartoony elements and musical numbers with a strong heroine and a dramatic, even epic, cinematic adventure.
In the title role is Yifei Liu (also known as Crystal Liu), an actress who has grown up with roles in wuxia stories, starring in Return of the Condor Heroes, and appearing with Jackie Chan and Jet Li in John Fusco’s Forbidden Kingdom. This isn’t wuxia, and only barely has fantasy elements, including a flying Phoenix that guides her similar to the condors in the Legend of the Condor Heroes. Unlike Disney’s animated character, this Mulan has inherited and developed warrior skills, trained early from her former-warrior father, skills she must later reject to step into her role in society as an obedient young woman–as expected of all girls. Her father is played by Wu Assassins and The Man in the High Castle’s Tzi Ma, bringing gravitas to the role with M*A*S*H and Star Trek’s Rosalind Chao as Mulan’s stalwart mother.
When the village must offer a male to defend the Emperor in battle against an army led by Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) as Bori Khan, Mulan disguises herself as a boy and reports to Commander Tung, played by Donnie Yen. Mulan trains and quickly is seen as one of the top fighters, although she continues the ruse as a male and holds back–somewhat–the extent of her skill. She has strong Qi (pronounced “chee”), the ancient life force that draws obvious comparisons to the Force of Star Wars especially with Yen in the same inspiring warrior realm as his role in Rogue One. The progression of the training, and key battle including a strategic avalanche, draws on epic battle scenes in film going back to the famous ice battle in Alexander Nevsky.
Gong Li as the Cyclone Mei-inspired witch Xian Lang enters the picture as partner in war with Khan, but her past informs her future actions. Explained in a key deleted scene, Xian has reasons for pushing Mulan forward and also holding her back. Her character is one of the biggest and best improvements on the animated film, and their combat scene a highlight of the show. With Jason Scott Lee’s Khan the duo is thoroughly and brilliantly despicable–a great villainous pairing.
Mulan is directed by Niki Caro, director of the fantastic and inspiring McFarland USA, among other award-winning films. That same goosebump-inducing power Caro had in McFarland USA comes through again loud and clear in Mulan. Beautiful armor work and period costumes were designed by Bina Daigeler (Volver, Grimm) and the rousing musical score was created by prolific film composer Harry Gregson-Williams. Grant Major brings a rich production that is Oscar-worthy, perhaps on the level of his work in The Lord of the Rings and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.
The special features on the home release dig into casting Mulan, and include interviews with the director and key cast members and creators. The best of these reveals the male supporting stars, including Chinese mega-action star Jet Li as The Emperor, all mentioning they agreed to take on their roles at the behest of (and maybe begging) of their own daughters who loved the earlier animated version.
In a thin year of movies, saying a film belongs at the top of the list of the year’s best from a quality and more subjective “favorites” standpoint may seem insubstantial. But Mulan would have done well at the box office in a normal year, and not just for the enormous following from the typical Disney fan. As to girl power and women’s empowerment, by contrast compare Mulan to the Wonder Woman movie from 2017. Mulan actually gets the aspirational thematic elements exactly right, illustrating how an enduring character should be adapted from print to motion picture form. The Mulan tale has stood the test of time for a reason–it’s an inspiring story, and this adaptation is worthy of the source material.
One of the best movies of the year in any genre category, Mulan is streaming now on home media, including Vudu. Don’t miss it.