The last time we saw the story of Mulan, a young woman who disguised herself as a man to enlist herself in the Imperial Army in place of her ailing father, it was in the form of an action musical that was Disney’s animated film to feature an Asian heroine.
Twenty-two years later Disney has dropped the songs and upped the body count in “Mulan,” a live action remake, featuring an all-Asian cast and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” producer Bill Kong behind the scenes, that premiers this week on the Disney+ streaming service.
Based on a sixth century legend called “Ballad of Mulan,” the new film lets go of many of the stereotypes that marred the animated version, hewing more closely to the tradition tale. Set in China during the Han dynasty in a quiet village, the story follows Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), the martial arts-trained eldest daughter of famed warrior Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma).
When the Emperor of China (Jet Li), fearing a threat from the invading Rouran army, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a skilled warrior fueled by anger over his father’s death and shape-shifting witch Xian Lang (Gong Li), he orders the conscription of one man from every household in the land to form a mighty militia.
As the father of all daughters Fa Zhou volunteers but is in no shape to go to war. Unbeknownst to him, Mulan disguises herself as a man and enrolls, risking her life and the dishonor of her family if she is discovered.
“Mulan” doesn’t feel like the other recent Disney live action do-overs. It is different enough in style, emotional content and tone from the animated movie to be a stand-alone with only a tenuous connection to the past. Director Niki Caro drags the story into the twenty-first century, emphasizing themes of female empowerment, allowing Mulan find her own inner-strength and potential and not rely on a Disney prince. The sparks that flew between Li Shang and Mulan in the original are mostly absent—as her commanding officer the power imbalance was deemed inappropriate for 2020—replaced by platonic love interest Chen Honghui (Yoson An).
The reported budget of $200 million is very much evident on the screen. The gorgeously shot Wuxia style action scenes are epic, and for the family audience, relatively bloodless considering how many people are dispatched by Mulan’s deadly blade. Occasionally they fall prey to a heavy hand from editor David Coulson but the sheer size and scope of them, even on the scaled down Disney+ television presentation, are eye-popping. A more intimate climax with life-or-death consequences for Bori Khan, Mulan or the Emperor, is a nicely rendered showdown that effectively delivers a good, exciting mix of action and character dynamics.
“Mulan” is a welcome addition to the Disney remake roster. It plays like a grown-up version of the animated film, bringing the story into the modern age, while keeping the family appeal intact.