The best Disney live-action remakes tend to be the ones where the director took on the gig, because they legitimately had something to say, rather than simply trying to cash a check. I also think taking on one of these properties should have a bit more gravity with it than it does, since these aren’t simply “kid’s cartoons”, over time they have evolved into our modern day fairy tales, that we then in turn pass on to our kids. As far as I’m concerned, deciding to ground one of these stories in reality begs the director to earn it with something more than another song or hyper realistic CGI animals.It was with this mindset I sat down to view Disney’s latest live action update for Mulan (1998), which as time has passed has only gotten more problematic.
Instead of the Huns here, we have the more historically accurate Rourins, who are ambushing outposts along the Silk Road, interrupting trade and slowly working their way in toward the Imperial City. Led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) who is essentially the Shan Yu of this incarnation, he hopes to avenge his father, who died at the hands of the Emperor (Jet Li) and take control of China. Like Shan Yu, Bori Khan also has a hawk, but here the creature also just happens to be a shapeshifting sorceress Xian Lang (Gong Li). Now, here is where these two stories diverge the most — see Xian Lang is able to do this because she has mastered her Chi ability. This is based on a real Chinese belief, and it’s something that has appeared in many martial arts films and anime, but here it’s used kind of like “The Force”. But only men are allowed to hone and use Chi abilities in China, and this also just happens to be the source of Mulan’s power.
Mulan here isn’t relegated to simply being a late bloomer, or can’t find a husband, she has this innate ability to be a great warrior, and when the emperor calls, she sees it as her chance to use that gift. Now because of that nuance the film is less about Khan vs. the Emperor, I mean it is, but the real thread here at the heart of this film is the story of Mulan vs. the Sorceress. On one side you have Lang who is vilified by her own people as a witch for her gender and her abilities, and on the other side you have Mulan who is almost equally as powerful, but has to hide her gender to use her abilities to defend her family. The film wisely doesn’t make this about Mulan trying to find a husband, although there are some sparks between her and Honghui (Yoson An), it’s more about these two women trying to find their place in a man’s world.
The cinematography here is sweeping, lush, and they even found a way to work in the color palette from the original animated classic into various costumes and settings. The performances are equally nuanced and the actors do a fantastic job at adding a new dimension to their 2D counterparts. Yifei Liu as Mulan is tasked with much more subtlety and turmoil here in her performance as her character is seemingly at war with everything internally and externally. Liu and Gong Li really are the anchors to this piece and the dynamic between the two on screen is definitely worth it. The only negative I could see, would be the compromise to do the film in English, rather than Cantonese. While this would have elevated the performances even further, since it most of the cast would be acting in the native tongue, I see this as the only necessary evil and compromise made by director Niki Caro.
Caro goes full arthouse, Wushu epic here and it’s a wonderful thing to behold. The film also lets you know right away it’s going to lean hard into the action. While it’s solidly executed, the edges here have been obviously dulled a bit to ensure that all important PG-13 rating. You don’t get the sounds of shattered bones, or blood flying from swordplay, but it’s still very evident this well choreographed action has very real consequences. I couldn’t imagine this was a popular choice with Disney, because Mulan does kill people. I think the film impressed me so much because it consistently chooses the more complex route both for its narrative and characters. This would also explain the difficulty the house of Mouse is having trying to market this and its decision to drop it on Disney+.
Mulan is easily one of their best Disney live action updates. The film is uncompromising, and its story of a woman trapped in a world dominated by men is one that is sadly as relevant as ever. Caro, has delivered the near impossible here turning in a film that would work just as well on Disney+ as it would in your local arthouse theater. Its something that may be hard to believe, but the film has a maturity that will no doubt challenge viewers who are just hoping for a cute talking sidekick and some fun songs to sing along to. Instead they are going to get an action filled spectacle that is hopefully going to inspire those same girls who possible foster some of the same doubts in themselves.