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.
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