The reason why this Mulan live-action movie is better than its Disney predecessors is that it unyokes itself from the animated film and doesn’t attempt a scene-by-scene remake. The story is similar, but is more faithful to the Ballad of Mulan myth, with fewer Disney-fications. While Cinderella and Beauty & the Beast were meant to appeal to the little girls who watched and loved the originals, now grown up and ready to be dazzled all over again, they inevitably disappointed because you can’t recapture that magic in a bottle. Mulan doesn’t try. It’s not made for the little girls we used to be, but for modern audiences used to stunning cinematography and well-choreographed action. The movie doesn’t seek to appease our inner princesses but to waken our inner warriors. Don’t compare this to the animated Mulan, compare it to Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, Tomb Raider, Captain Marvel, Rogue One.
Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a spirited young woman whose childhood antics were somewhat indulged by her family but now that she’s of marrying age, she needs to dampen that fire in order to make an auspicious match and bring honour to her family. That is a woman’s place, a daughter’s place: honour through a good marriage and by being a quiet, elegant, composed, invisible wife. Her chi needs to be hidden away; it is meant for warriors, not women. But you know how this story goes. When the enemy Rouran threaten the Chinese empire, each family must send a man to fight, and since Mulan’s father has no sons, he himself is the only option, even though he’s disabled from the last war. To save him, Mulan steals away in the night, and poses as a man to take her family’s place in the Chinese army.
Niki Caro’s Mulan looks slick as hell. The colours are fantastic, the reds so vivid they’re nearly engorged, Mandy Walker’s cinematography bringing lush, diverse landscapes into sharp focus.
I love how grounded in history this movie felt; the animated film tread rather lightly on the reality of Mulan’s every day life, but here her mother reminds her (and us) of the dire consequences should her spunk be taken the wrong way, that such a woman would swiftly be labelled a witch and put to death.
At boot camp, sheltered Mulan is bunking among rough young soldiers. They do not sing their way through a snappy montage of training, they push their bodies to the limit trying to get battle-ready in time to save their country and their emperor. Friendships are made but they are also tested. This is not some summer camp – these young men know that their lives will soon be on the line, and they will need to count on each other in order to survive not to mention succeed.
The action sequences are stunning. Clearly Yifei Liu and company are the real deal, expertly trained and extremely convincing. Any movie that has the guts to bench Jet Li as the emperor and let others perform the martial arts had better bring the goods, and Mulan does. It’s not breaking new ground, but it’s well-executed and exciting to watch.
My one complaint is that the movie’s so intent on delivering incredible visuals and epic battle scenes, it devotes precious little time to developing its characters. We know that Mulan is fiesty and brave, but little else. We know even less of the others. Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) is a fierce leader and knows raw talent when he sees it but if he has any life or thoughts outside of war we aren’t privy. If Honghui (Yoson An) is surprised by the intimate nature of his friendship with the new, very handsome, very soft-featured soldier, he doesn’t show it, or shy away from it. He doesn’t mention it at all. And the other soldiers are just caricatures, filling up the ranks. But I think the real loss is in our villains, a duo didn’t inspire as much panic as their potential first teased. The one is just your run of the mill bad guy – his want and his greed are in opposition to China’s, and he’s pretty ruthless in his pursuit, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, in movies and in life. The other is by far the more interesting and I wish we could have known more of her, particularly because the final showdown between herself and Mulan is low-key amazing and I think understanding her a little better would only have strengthened that moment. Still, 1998’s Mulan had a villain, a Hun named Shan Yu, with eyes as black as his soul, who inspired not mere fear but terror, and we didn’t know anything about him. True, I was a child then, but I’ve rewatched it recently, and his menace is chilling, even without much context.
I enjoyed the 2020 Mulan. The cast was great. The film was incredibly shot and almost ridiculously beautiful. It evokes just enough of the first film through detail and musical cues. It was a treat, a rarity among Disney remakes, one that actually justifies its existence by incorporating the best of the first but improves upon it too, gives it a more mature and serious tone, one befitting a warrior, and that’s exactly what she is.