2020, PG-13, 115 min. Directed by Niki Caro. Starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Ron Yuan.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 4, 2020

Grumble all you want about Disney’s ongoing money-minting operation converting its animated pictures into live-action do-overs; I’ve grumbled plenty. But the tale of the girl warrior Mulan didn’t start at Disney and, despite Mulan’s conscription into the Disney princess machine, it’s not going to end there, either. First introduced in ballad form in sixth century China, the folkloric figure Hua Mulan has been noodled on ever after – including this film’s direct inspiration, the 1998 animated, eponymous feature.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek stick to the basic beats of the 1998 film – tomboy Mulan disguises herself as a man to take her place in the Imperial Army and defend the emperor from an invading force – but avoids the slavish re-creation that has left other live-action redos coming off like glorified cosplay. It smartly skips the goofier aspects of the original, too. Once you’ve shed musical numbers and Eddie Murphy cracking wise as a dragon, you’re in far less jocular territory.

And that feels right for the material, which fuses Disney and wuxia values with a pretty good success rate. The film’s bookends set in Mulan’s village feel the most Disneyfied – set dressing that reads expensive but flat, extras’ outfits that look less lived-in than retrieved off the rack from the costume department, and an early, worryingly clumsy digital effects-heavy action sequence that proves the exception not the rule. Once Mulan (Liu) joins basic training under the command of Commander Tung (played by martial arts legend Donnie Yen), the landscape breathes more authentically epic – surprise, that’s Caro’s native New Zealand mostly subbing for China – and the action and effects are outstanding, crescendoing to an inventive final confrontation that makes nifty use of a construction site.

Though there’s not much blood spray, bodies are regularly tossed over ramparts and left crumpled on the ground; in terms of violence, Mulan is firmly PG-13. I wish that translated to slightly more adult themes, too. There’s fertile material here for something more daring or playful in terms of Mulan’s attempts to pass as male. (The cartoon was actually kinkier.) And with Gong Li’s turn as a shapeshifting witch, the filmmakers might have tapped some of the camp deliciousness of Charlize Theron’s similar figure in Snow White and the Huntsman, or mined her instead for an operatic tragedy in the vein of House of Flying Daggers. Mulan chooses the straightforward path – a dutiful one entirely in line with the girl warrior and her unimpeachable code of honor.

In addition to a limited theatrical release, Mulan will be available on Sept. 4 to Disney+ subscribers exclusively as a $29.99 premium add-on.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Niki Caro Films
The Zookeeper's Wife
World War II drama based on the bestselling book

Marjorie Baumgarten, April 7, 2017

McFarland, USA
Despite heavy sports-underdog cliches, this film with Kevin Costner as the coach of an all-Latino high school track team taps into a lot of modern realities.

Marc Savlov, Feb. 20, 2015

More by Kimberley Jones
Official Competition
Cruz and Banderas reunite in this scathing comedy about ego and filmmaking

July 1, 2022

We Have an Issue: Struggling to Find the Words
We Have an Issue: Struggling to Find the Words
In this week's issue, we explore Austin's response to the overturn of Roe v. Wade

July 1, 2022


Mulan, Niki Caro, Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Ron Yuan

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle