Mulan review: Disney’s remake is as beautiful as it is exciting

I didn’t expect Disney’s Mulan to present me with a philosophical dilemma, but here we are.

Directed by Niki Caro, Mulan was initially scheduled to premiere in theaters this year, bringing its story of a young woman destined to be a legendary warrior to the biggest screens possible. Ideally, audiences would have been able to soak in its vibrant colors, stunning natural vistas, and spectacular choreography while star Liu Yifei delivers a performance as compelling as it is exciting.

But alas, that’s not the world we live in right now, and Disney wisely chose to prioritize the health and safety of audiences by sending Mulan straight to streaming service Disney+ as the first big test of its Premier Access service, which lets subscribers see first-run films for an additional fee. It’s a commendable decision — particularly for a film that cost more than $200 million to make — and will hopefully be a sign of things to come as Hollywood continues to deal with the industry-rattling effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

And yet, even after watching Mulan in a well-equipped home theater, I can’t help wishing there was the opportunity to see the film on a massive, state-of-the-art screen despite my strong feelings about the danger posed by indoor cinemas right now. Fortunately, Mulan offers a rewarding experience no matter what type of screen you see it on.

A hero’s journey

A live-action remake of the 1998 animated feature of the same name, Mulan delivers more than just spectacle, thanks to its immensely talented star, Liu Yifei.

Liu handles the story’s quiet moments as comfortably as its most elaborate scenes, adding just the right amount of nuance and emotion to Mulan’s struggle to weigh her boundless enthusiasm against the restrictive expectations her family and community place on young women. Mulan’s life is a balancing act that has her abiding by traditional Chinese culture and exploring the tremendous potential of her chi, the energy she harnesses to perform amazing feats of acrobatic skill.

It’s those amazing feats that lead her father (portrayed by The Farewell actor Tzi Ma) to a moral quandary as he tries to reconcile his daughter’s gifts with the traditional expectation of quiet subservience placed on women her age. To abandon the latter would lead to dishonor for the family, and Tzi delivers a strong performance as his character struggles with the idea of sacrificing his daughter’s potential to protect their family.

Mulan’s decision to pose as a man and join the Emperor’s war against the invading Rouran legions follows the basic premise of the film’s animated source material, but the story incorporates more modern themes in ways that help in making Liu’s performance feel fresh and contemporary despite being set during the Han dynasty. This willingness to take an old story in new, timely directions makes Mulan feel like the least Disney-esque of the studio’s live-action adaptations of its animated films so far, and elevates it above the typical rehash of well-worn tales.

Beauty in battle

Although Caro’s film does a nice job of setting itself apart from its animated predecessor both thematically and tonally, it’s in the action sequences and choreography where Liu and Mulan shine the brightest.

The film’s cast features quite a few veterans of martial arts cinema, including Jet Li (as the Emperor of China) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story actor Donnie Yen (as the leader of the Imperial Army and Mulan’s mentor). Although they’re each given a brief scene or two to showcase their skills, it’s Liu who steals every action scene she’s given with a sense of calm control that makes her extraordinary action scenes seem even more wonderful to behold. In fact, it’s when she’s showing the least regard for the laws of physics that Liu seems the most comfortable as Mulan — making her performance and the choreography that makes it possible that much more impressive.

As the film’s primary villain, Jason Scott Lee is given some opportunity to show off his own action skills, and the actor who once portrayed martial arts legend Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story makes good use of the limited time he’s given. There’s a widely held belief that Hollywood’s best heroes tend to come from films with memorable villains, but Mulan defies that old adage by making Lee’s savage character, Bori Khan, almost an afterthought in Mulan’s ascension.

If there’s anyone who does manage to steal a scene or two from Liu, it’s Gong Li as the shapeshifting witch Xian Lang, whose own struggle for recognition in a world ruled by men offers a dark reflection of Mulan’s journey. Gong is at the center of several fantastic, effects-driven sequences in Mulan that add to the film’s visual splendor, and her performance is both subtle in all the right ways and gloriously over the top when the moment calls for it.

A complete package

From its wonderfully filmed action sequences to its supremely talented star, Mulan checks off all the boxes for a Hollywood hit and another win for Disney in its mission to recycle every animated feature made by the studio.

Simply calling it a remake of the 1998 movie does it a disservice, though, as Mulan accomplishes something Beauty and the BeastAladdin, and many of Disney’s other live-action remakes weren’t willing or able to do: It makes its story feel fresh and timely. That’s no small feat, given the film’s historical setting and well-worn story, but what Liu brings to the role and the way it makes Mulan’s experiences relatable give it a presence outside typical remake territory.

That’s why it’s such a shame that Mulan isn’t likely to have the same opportunity to impress audiences that other films — Disney and non-Disney alike — have received in recent years. It boasts some of the most gorgeous sequences, sets, and scenery you’ll find in a film these days, and yet somehow the power of its story and its lead actress’ performance still manage to feel bigger than all of that eye candy.

We might not be able to see Mulan in theaters, but even without the big-screen experience, it’s a film well worth seeing.

Disney’s live-action Mulan is available to stream on Disney+ as of September 4.

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