Disney's insistence on remaking its animated classics is baffling. They take movies that are perfect, create inferior new versions, and expect audiences to be thankful. Last year's The Lion King was the absolute nadir of this trend. Who really thought photo-realistic CGI was going to improve that story? Mulan, which is skipping theaters because of the Coronavirus and going straight to Disney+, is the first time I've seen one of these remakes and thought it kind of, maybe had a reason to exist. Is it as good as the animated version? No, but it's not the soulless cash grab The Lion King and The Jungle Book were, either.
That's because director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) doesn't feel the need to slavishly recreate the source material. There are a few changes, most notably the wise decision to ax Mushu, the dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy in the 1998 version. That character would have been out of place here, as Caro wants to give her iteration of the tale a somewhat realistic feel. (I say “somewhat” because there's still a lot of gravity-defying action.) Both Mulans are female empowerment stories; this iteration, however, has a vibe that's more mature.
Yifei Liu plays Mulan, the gifted young warrior encouraged to hide her gifts by her father (Tzi Ma). When the Emperor (Jet Li) orders a male from every family to serve in the Imperial Army, Mulan disguises herself as a boy and joins so that her father, who has no sons, won't have to fight. She's soon pitted against a shape-shifting witch, Xian Lang (Gong Li), who is helping the evil Bori Khan (Jason Scott Li). Of course, trying to hide her true gender isn't always easy. You know the story from here.
Mulan is made with the elegance of pictures such as Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or anything Zhang Yimou has ever done. The production design is breathtaking, the cinematography exquisite. You may not see a more visually captivating picture this year. The acting is equally fine. Liu makes the character's journey authentic. We buy her desire to protect her family, as well as the manner in which she learns to stop hiding her skills. As Xian Lang, Gong Li provides the story with menace. She's an excellent foil for the title character. Action scenes, meanwhile, are exciting, filled with dazzling fight choreography.
The film's strongest point – and the thing that makes it better for older kids than younger ones – is its message. Caro emphasizes Mulan's emotional journey – from the way she's taught to ignore her gifts and be a traditional wife, to shattering the gender roles of her time, to fully embracing what she has to offer. Mulan sends the message to young female viewers that their abilities are every bit as valid as any male's. Yes, that message was in the animated version, too; it rings stronger here because of the live-action format.
On the flip side of that, animation has a style of magic all its own. Story elements and characters can be heightened through its use. I still prefer the animated Mulan, which was more fun and a little less self-serious, for that reason. And that's okay. We can have a version that's light and a version that's heavier. The important part is that the 2020 Mulan doesn't feel it as though it was made simply to score easy money. Caro, her cast, and her crew find their own inspiration in re-telling the tale.
out of four
Mulan is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.