For the most part, Disney’s grand experiment of making live action versions of their classic animated films has not been a success. Sure, it’s made them oodles of money, but creatively the movies have been less than fulfilling, either being little more than shot-for-shot remakes or uninspired retellings of stories we know and love.
When the trailer for the new Mulan came out, it was immediately clear that it would be something different. In fact, it bore little resemblance to the animated musical, with no hint of low-brow shtick or even songs. For all intents and purposes, it looked as if director Niki Caro and writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek would treat the story with gravity and purpose.
I’m happy to say that is exactly what they delivered. The base story remains the same: When the Chinese Army conscripts one man from every family to fight against invaders, Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) secretly steps in for her ailing father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma). Properly disguised as a man, Mulan joins the army and quickly impresses with her level of dedication and skill, especially when she goes up against fellow soldier Honghui (Yoson An).
The invaders have some truly intimidating people leading them, including the fearsome Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and Xianniang (Gong Li), a witch who can transform into a bird. As Mulan rises in the ranks of the army, the invaders get ever closer to accomplishing their goal of overthrowing the emperor (Jet Li).
Caro and her team, taking inspiration from any number of fantastical Chinese action movies, go all-in with fight scenes that are both exciting and beautiful. The fluidity of the movements, the creativity of the staging, and more make the sequences a wonder to behold. For many, it will their first exposure to the type of scenes seen in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the accessibility of Mulan’s story makes it a great entry point.
While the film is kid-friendly, it’s not aimed strictly at children, as evidenced by its PG-13 rating. There is no blood, but the violence in the film is definitely stepped up over your typical Disney outing. It also stays true to the goal of building up a strong woman while still maintaining her femininity. Mulan is fierce, determined, devoted to her family, and alluring, with all of those elements combining to paint a full picture of a woman at a time when women were usually subjugated.
The film pays homage to the cutesy elements of the first film without actually going down that road itself. Gone is the dragon Mushu, both because he doesn’t mesh with the story at large and because he was considered culturally insensitive. The sidekick Cri-kee, an actual cricket in the original film, is reimagined as a slightly goofy fellow soldier named Cricket (Jun Yu), who brings humor to the film without undercutting the drama.
What many fans of the original may miss the most are the songs, but their absence makes complete sense. Having these particular characters break into song would break the spell that the rest of the film casts. Still, Caro and composer Harry Gregson-Williams know they can’t get rid of the familiar music completely, which is why snippets of music from the popular song “Reflection” are woven in throughout, and actual reflections of Mulan pop up at key moments in clever ways. There are also full versions of the song sung by Christina Aguilera in English (an updated one from her 1998 version) and Liu in Mandarin during the end credits (Aguilera also sings a new song, “Loyal Brave True”).
The film features familiar faces like Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Rosalind Chao, but Liu is the star through-and-through. She brings everything you could want to the role and more, exhibiting the spirit of Mulan in multiple ways. Yoson An offers great support as a rival/slight love interest, and it’s easy to see him gaining more work in English should he desire it.
Mulan is easily the best live action remake Disney has put out, both because the story lent itself well to taking out cartoonish elements, and because the filmmakers put in the work toward making it stand out. Seeing it on the big screen would have been great, but streaming it through Disney+ is still worth every penny.
Mulan is available on September 4 via Disney+ Premier Access, a premium price on top of the monthly subscription cost.