Disney's 'Mulan' Balances the Epic and the Intimate

Who needs songs when you have action, heart, and character drama?

Liu Yifei in Mulan
Disney+

Remakes are always tricky business, as filmmakers must decide how faithful they want to be to the original. It’s even more of a challenge when you’re retelling not just a single film but a familiar tale known to generations around the world. The story of Mulan is best-known to many as a 1998 animated film from Disney, but the legend has been shared for centuries, both in and out of China where it originates. It’s been told on-screen via live-action as recently as 2009’s Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, and now Disney has returned with their own live-action epic remake titled, simply, Mulan.

A ruthless band of warriors leaves a trail of carnage and carcasses throughout China, and the emperor decrees the mandatory military service of one male from each family. Gifted only with a wife and two daughters, elderly veteran Zhou (Tzi Ma) answers the call, but before he can report for duty his eldest, Mulan (Liu Yifei), beats him to it. Dressed and bound like a man, she takes her father’s armor and sword and heads to war. Combat skills, of which she’s undeniably gifted, are championed among the new trainees, but the military leaders make it clear that honor and honesty are every bit as important. As the battle draws closer to home, Mulan is forced to decide if lying about who she really is serves a greater purpose… or if there’s no greater purpose than being true to yourself.

The Disney empire’s continued effort to bring each of their animated hits to live-action life continues with Mulan, and it’s easily one of their most accomplished and affecting efforts to date. It’s more The Jungle Book (2016) than The Lion King (2019) in that it’s both quite good and not the first live-action version of the tale to hit screens. But unlike both of those films, its success rests squarely on the shoulders of human characters rather than chatty animals. Happily, the humans both in front of and behind the camera are more than up to the task at hand.

The two women deserving of the most immediate credit are director Niki Caro and lead Liu. Caro revisits the promise and themes of her breakout film, 2002’s Whale Rider, with this tale of a young woman fighting against sexist expectations and traditions. She’s working on a far larger scale, but she does a fantastic job marrying the epic nature of battle scenes, stunts, and special effects with the more intimate character moments between Mulan and those around her. Caro and the film’s four credited writers (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek) bring nothing new really to the already familiar story, but they succeed in delivering perhaps its most thrilling and affecting adaptation.

Liu is a central part of that as she’s tasked with convincing viewers of both her emotional journey of self-discovery and her bad-assery. The latter is accomplished through athletic skill, appealing choreography, and elaborate wire-work. The former, though, is all Liu. We see her struggle early on to meet the standards expected of young women — a wife must be silent and invisible — and she doesn’t take her intentional deception lightly. She’s conflicted, and Liu’s performance makes it clear that Mulan is a woman who values family and honor at the detriment of her own truth. Her dawning realization and subsequent turning point are effective and affecting while still feeling subtle and personal. It’s an epic tale, but much of the journey is hers alone.

While Liu gets the emotional beats and narrative arc, the supporting cast is equally strong starting with Ma as Mulan’s father. The two only share scenes that bookend the film, but their chemistry and bond are undeniable. The same can’t necessarily be said for Yoson An as Mulan’s potential love interest, but thankfully the film minimizes that angle and allows mutual respect to build between them instead. Donnie Yen appears as Commander Tung and reminds the world just how charismatic and physically capable he is, Jet Li shows up as the emperor, Jason Scott Lee delivers with an intense lead villain, and Disney’s OG Mulan, Ming Na-Wen, even pops in for a quick cameo. Gong Li stands out with a wonderfully conflicted turn as a witch tasked with aiding the villains, and she manages to be an impressively imposing presence with an emotional arc.

While not the first live-action adaptation of the tale, Disney’s film is certainly the most epic (read expensive-looking). The production design, costumes, and period detail help create a captivating world, and the landscapes, both real and realized, add to the grandeur. From the architecture to the advancing armies, the film’s visuals are striking, energetic, and colorful. Some of the early wire-work seems a bit janky, but like Mulan herself, it finds its footing in battle and thrilling action set-pieces. The CG adds depth to the landscapes but is kept to a relative minimum up close — it’s used to erase more elements than it is to add them — with only a handful of exceptions usually involving Gong Li’s costume changes (and species swaps).

As mentioned, Mulan doesn’t really bring much new to the table even as it delivers a powerful lesson in female empowerment. The story hews closely to its animated predecessor but jettisons the songs which even die-hard fans won’t miss here when the visuals, themes, and Harry Gregson-Williams‘ score are every bit as dazzling. It’s an engaging ride that never outstays its welcome and instead gifts viewers with a tale well told. Loyal, brave, and true are honorable ideals to aim for, and it’s no spoiler to say that Mulan — and Mulan — achieve all three.

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