The live-action version of “Mulan” has clearly forced Disney and the filmmakers to dodge lots of obstacles over the years. In its early stages, it faced a petition pleading with Disney to hire Chinese actors rather than whitewash the cast. It lost one central character that was deemed offensive to Chinese audiences and lost another to avoid a romance between a young woman and an older man with authority over her. It changed the story both to be more culturally sensitive and to more actively deal with issues of female empowerment.
And after its lavish March 9 premiere at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, it lost its theatrical release to the coronavirus, ending up as a Disney+ release. The big-budget remake of the 1998 animated film won’t be shown on the big screen for which it was designed, but now might make lots of money for the subscription service, both in new subscribers and in the $30 fee Disney is charging on top of the subscription.
You can certainly argue about whether “Mulan” is worth the extra money, but the production seems to have steered clear of the other pitfalls and delivered a satisfying movie that veers further from its source than any of the studio’s other recent live-action remakes of its animated films.
This “Mulan” is darker in tone and more mysterious than its predecessor; at times it’s more violent (it’s the first remake of an animated film to land a PG-13 rating), and at other times more contemplative. With the songs taken out and the goofy dragon sidekick banished, it’s a more mature take on the story and one that might not be the ticket for families who figure that their $30 ought to provide an experience that satisfies their youngest kids.
Where “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Jungle Book,” among others, devoted a lot of time to recreating a “live-action” version of their animated predecessors, New Zealand director Niki Caro’s version of “Mulan” finds a unique take on the story. By tiptoeing through the minefield laid by the original film’s Disneyfied, Westernized take on the centuries-old Chinese folk tale, she has created a film that plays less like a remake than a rich new interpretation.
Of course, in its bones, this is still “Mulan.” The title character, played by Liu Yifei after a worldwide casting search, is still a headstrong young woman who chafes at the idea of becoming a subservient wife. When the Emperor conscripts one male from each family to join the imperial army and fight off the northern invaders, she disguises herself as a man and joins in place of her aging and injured father.
And for the rest of the film, Mulan must strive to become a true warrior, and then battle an invading army whose leader relies on a shape-shifting sorceress to give them otherworldly skills. (For one thing, they can run straight up walls, a trick that’s easier to buy in an animated film than a live-action one.)
The characters in this version of “Mulan” never break into song, and Mulan’s talking-dragon sidekick Mushu (which Chinese audiences felt showed disrespect for a powerful image in their culture) has been replaced by a phoenix that floats above the action at key moments but never speaks or directly engages with Mulan. The comic character of the grandmother is also missing, as befits a film that downplays the comedy in favor of large-scale battle scenes.
Those battles are brutal without being bloody, and lengthy enough to ensure the unusual (for Disney) PG-13 rating. They’re both the most spectacular part of the film and, at times, the most troublesome: Its $200 million budget notwithstanding, the film could have smoothed out the rough edges in some awkward visual effects that draw unwanted attention to themselves.
At times, as Mulan’s squad leader tells her “The Chi is powerful (in you)” or the evil sorceress invites her to “join me – we will take our place together,” there are echoes of “Star Wars”; at other times, as Mulan reveals her true identity and rides into battle in slow motion, her hair streaming in the wind, it’s gloriously corny.
It’s also unabashedly feminist, and dedicated to proving that Mulan’s father doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he says, “Chi is for warriors, not daughters.” Even the bad guys emphasize that point: Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) would be nothing without the power of his shapeshifting sorceress Xian Lang (Gong Li), but he’s dismissive toward her because she’s a woman, which turns out not to be the wisest move.
The emphasis on empowerment is certainly in keeping with the original “Mulan,” and with the original Chinese story, but this version takes it further, as a movie made in these times must. Niki Caro’s “Mulan” is an epic in scale but a personal story at heart, and a naturalistic take on the legend even with the massive VFX budget.
Yes, it should be viewed on a big screen, the way it was designed to be seen. And yes, $30 is a lot to play for one movie when you’re already paying for the Disney+ subscription. But if you strip away the things that make this such an unusual release in such an unusual year, you’ll find a pretty good movie and one that approaches this story with heart and with fresh eyes.