Disney Brings Mulan to Live Action in a Galaxy Far, Far Away
DIRECTOR: NIKI CARO/2020
After months of hemming and hawing, the first blockbuster of the year has finally arrived in the USA, and she comes in the form of an ancient legend from China.
If you’ve seen the 1998 animated Mulan, you won’t need an overview of the plot to know whether or not you’re interested. These Disney live action remakes never stray too far from their roots, featuring many nods to the cartoon favorites. That means most have been crowd-pleasing (and profitable) hits, but for some adaptations, that legacy can become a millstone around their necks. Last year’s “live action” version of The Lion King became a shot-for-shot remake that showed there are strengths to hand drawn animation that CGI may not ever be able to replicate.
In the new Mulan, there are some obsequious references to the animated musical that wouldn’t translate to this quasi-realistic war drama, such as a character named Cricket instead of Mulan carrying a cricket to war for luck. But there’s no Mushu, an Eddie Murphy role that would make no sense in this filmmaking style, and while the score uses motifs from “Reflection,” the characters don’t sing. And guess what? Mulan is just fine without them and even better when it adds new elements to the legend.
Yes, this Mulan is still the story of a young woman (Yifei Liu) who disguises herself as a man to join the Chinese army and save her father’s life. But her father (Tzi Ma) tells us in an opening voiceover that this is his version of the legend, and in it, Mulan is not just a committed daughter but a woman with a special gift. From a young age, this Mulan has had a special connection with her chi. This is not the chi you’ve heard mentioned in yoga class—or if it is, I’m clearly not doing it right—this chi is “the boundless energy of life itself speaking through her every motion.” In her battle training, she learns, “The chi pervades the universe and all living things. We are all born with it, but only the most true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.”
So…basically, yes, she is strong with the Force. In this telling of the story, Mulan is more like Rey Skywalker than her animated counterpart from the ‘90s, and the greatest influences on this film are action fantasy epics like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. I don’t blame Disney for trying to hold out for a theatrical release for Mulan—visually this movie is a stand out, and the Chinese landscapes and epic battle sequences would sparkle on a giant screen. Mulan wields her father’s sword like Luke does his father’s lightsaber, and the best soldiers shoot arrows and swing from their horses like Legolas.
These action sequences are the greatest strength of this reimagining of Mulan’s story, and though it’s not as ambitious, it’s more satisfying and coherent than The Rise of Skywalker. The script focuses on the soldier’s virtues to be loyal, brave, and true, but instead taking the path of 2015’s Cinderella and just repeating the message of “have courage and be kind” 100 times, it explores that idea in how Mulan performs in battle and how she responds to her marginalization as a woman. Women are forbidden to harness the power of chi lest they be outcast as a witch like Xianniang (Li Gong), so not only is Mulan trying to find a place where she belongs, she’s trying to resist temptation to use power only for herself like Xianniang.
If you grew up on Mulan (or your children did and you watched it on repeat with them), these new elements feel true to the spirit of that first movie while breathing fresh air into a hit-or-miss Disney formula. As one who had a Mulan-themed birthday party growing up, I speak from experience here—these don’t feel like the confusing changes in Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Mulan is more evidence that these Disney rehashes come alive when they take liberties with their source material.
If you’re parenting in quarantine right now, it’s worth mentioning that buying the Disney+ Premier Access lets you watch it as much as you want before it’s available to everyone on Disney+ in December. (That $29.99 for three months of viewing doesn’t feel so steep when you remember Trolls: World Tour was $19.99 for 48 hours of access.) And while Mulan is PG-13, it’s tamer in its tone and mostly-bloodless violence than The Lord of the Rings and even Star Wars. I’m a little surprised it didn’t pass for PG, so parents shouldn’t be deterred by the higher rating if their kids have already been okay with fantasy violence in the past.