REVIEW – ‘Mulan’ is one of the best Disney live-action remakes thus far

If you’re still recovering from the terrible trio of Disney live-action remakes we were served in 2019, the idea of another cherished animated classic being lazily rehashed in 2020 is likely the last thing you’re yearning for in the middle of a global pandemic. After the soulless shot-for-shot remakes The Lion King and Aladdin and the ambitious misfire that was Dumbo, something decently competent like Mulan ultimately looks like a masterpiece by fortunate virtue of comparison to a string of disappointments.

After seeing its March big screen debut scuttled by a global health crisis, Disney’s $200 million blockbuster arrives this week on Disney+ with a hefty additional price tag ($34.99 in Australia, $29.99 in the U.S., £19.99 in the UK) on top of your subscription fee. Much has been made of this bold commercial decision, particularly given the film will be available to all Disney+ subscribers in December. There’s no point in me commenting on it further. You’re either willing to pay this price or you’re prepared to wait three months.

It’s a mighty shame we’ll never be gifted the opportunity to see this sprawling epic on the big screen, as Mulan is one of the year’s greatest visual wonders and was clearly designed to be enjoyed on the largest screen possible. Even the biggest television sets won’t do this film justice. With impeccable production values, majestic cinematography, and a genuinely engaging plot, Mulan is a sumptuous treat for the eyes and one of the best Disney live-action remakes thus far.

Disney purists will likely bemoan the changes made from the 1998 feature animation (farewell, Mushu) and not every new element works entirely effectively. However, unlike the dull exact replica remakes we’ve often seen from the House of Mouse, it’s a fresh reimagining that retains the essence of its animated counterpart while striving to avoid the follies of Disney’s chequered live-action back catalogue.

We first meet our titular heroine Hua Mulan (Crystal Rao) as a precocious youngster with a knack for getting into trouble, as exhibited during a lively opening sequence featuring Mulan chasing a runaway chicken across the rooftops of her village, which, naturally, causes all sorts of chaos. Mulan’s beleaguered mother, Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) is constantly embarrassed by her daughter’s unruly behaviour, while her decorated war veteran father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) seems to take pride in Mulan’s lively spirit.

As Mulan (now played by Yifei Liu) matures and nears the age for marriage, her mother is concerned the town matchmaker (Cheng Pei-pei) will struggle to find a man who will accept such an “unruly” woman for a wife. But there are larger problems on the horizon with the entire empire under threat from Rouran warrior Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who is out to avenge the death of his father and seize control of China from the Emperor (Jet Li).

Aided by the powerful shapeshifting witch Xian Lang (Gong Li), Khan has amassed an army of barbarian warriors from the north, who are sweeping across China and decimating the Emperor’s forces. With the fate of China on the line, the Emperor decrees one man from every family must join the Imperial Army and defend the Empire from the Northern invaders.

Despite his ailing health, Zhou steps forward to offer to fight for the Emperor and bring honour to his family and ancestors. As Li mourns her husband’s certain death, Mulan secretly takes her father’s sword and armour, binds her chest and hair, and disguises herself as a man named Jun to take Zhou’s place in the Imperial Army. As fate would have it, a woman may be precisely the key to saving China.

For fans of the much-loved 1998 animated feature, you may be disappointed to learn of elements from the original that have been cast off for this live-action remake. Mushu, the wise-cracking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, is gone, as is Mulan’s love interest Li Shang, who has instead been essentially split into two characters, Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and Chen Honghu (Yoson An). And, unlike previous live-action retellings of Disney’s 90s renaissance animated musicals, there’s not a single musical number to be found here.

Frankly, it’s incredibly refreshing to see such changes, especially after suffering through Disney’s recent slew of live-action remakes that do little more than bastardise everything you loved about the original. In the capable hands of director Niki Caro (who now holds the title of helming the most expensive film ever directed by a female), Mulan seeks to offer something different to what we saw in animation and present a narrative more rooted in the mythology of both its titular star and Imperial China.

There are numerous nostalgic references to connect this remake to its animated counterpart, particularly the occasional use of Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s iconic track “Reflection” in Harry Gregson-Williams‘ rousing original score and a few cheeky lines of dialogue, like Commander Tung noting “we’ll make men out of you” during an army training sequence. But Caro and screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin strive to put their own fresh take on an icon of Disney folklore, which is practically unheard of with remakes these days.

For those familiar with Caro’s 2002 breakthrough Whale Rider, we know she is a filmmaker proficient in handling a narrative centred on the coming-of-age journey of a young woman. It makes her the perfect choice for something like Mulan, where she has wisely removed the giddy distractions of the animation that took the focus off what made the young warrior such a groundbreaking Disney protagonist. Without lavish musical numbers and slapstick comedy, Caro is free to expand Mulan’s complicated internal battle between obligation and freedom.

It’s a pleasure to watch the captivating Liu bring Mulan to life. The experienced action star effortlessly handles the elaborate fight choreography, while instilling the heroine with such impressive determination and endearing love for her family. Whether in the character’s mythological origins or the Disney animated adaptation, Mulan has always been a character who refuses to pander to expectation, and Liu presents the warrior-in-the-making as a character young girls can (and should) emulate.

However, in a major departure from its predecessor, Mulan is not just an average village girl, rather she is blessed with a life force known as qi (or ch’i), which Chinese philosophers believe permeates through the strongest warriors. It’s a boundless energy source only meant for males, who are taught to harness and channel their power from a young age. In early scenes, Zhou reluctantly tells his young daughter she must hide her gift for fear she will be branded a witch. The secret to her success arrives when she ignores her father’s advice and unleashes the suppressed power within.

While it’s admirable a piece of ancient Chinese philosophy is injected into the narrative, it does cast Mulan in a decidedly different fashion than previous incarnations. The use of qi to explain her impressive talents teeters the source of her power towards that of magic, which is only compounded by the appearance of a soaring phoenix as her spirit guide. It’s a curious choice to portray Mulan in such a way that somewhat alters the character’s standing as an ordinary girl who achieves extraordinary feats by perseverance alone. Then again, perhaps qi can merely be read as a metaphor for the inner strength within us all, but it’s hardly an allegory that effectively shines through.

The use of qi does intrinsically connect our heroine to the villainous Lang, who, like Mulan, was once a young girl whose strong association with the lifeforce terrified those around her, leading to exile from her community when she refused to conform to traditional female standards. As an entirely new villain within the narrative, Lang feels like a breath of fresh air and offers Mulan an alternate path in life, but her character arc is a touch rushed and you yearn for more screentime with this fascination new creation. Still, in a visual sense, she’s an imposing and menacing enchantress, further elevated by Li’s ethereal performance.

A lavish spectacle in every sense of the word, the production values of Mulan are utterly stunning. On a big screen, every element would have soared even higher, but even on a television screen, Mulan is an impressive visual masterclass that consistently showcases every dollar of that $200 million budget. Shot on location in New Zealand and China and featuring a host of gargantuan sets, it’s a sumptuous playground for Caro to create a series of richly entertaining set-pieces.

The film’s extended battle sequences are a cavalcade of impressive stunt work with physics-defying fight choreography, captured by cinematographer Mandy Walker with dizzying freneticism. In her first dalliance with blockbuster filmmaking, Caro proves adept at staging these elaborate scenes, offering genuine thrills and entertainment at every turn. Throw in gorgeous period costume designs by Bina Daigeler and extravagant production design from Grant Major, and you’ve got one of the year’s most luxurious gifts.

With a stirring finale that may just bring a tear to your eye, Mulan knows how to play with your heartstrings and ends in terrific style, particularly by inviting Christina Aguilera back to record a new version of “Reflection” for the closing credits. The worst remakes (especially those from Disney) do little more than refashion the original in a spiffy new package. Mulan deftly avoids this temptation, with Caro determined to deliver a fresh adaptation that’s both enormously entertaining and spectacularly beautiful.

Perhaps we can cling to the hope Disney may re-release Mulan in theatres once coronavirus is a thing of the past, as this film deserves its moment to shine on the big screen. Regardless, it’s a wondrous thrill to see a Disney live-action remake take a bold stance and offer something different than a pointless rehashing. Mulan has always stood as one of Disney’s finest animated heroines, and her power only grows with this striking reimagining that more than lives up to Hua Mulan’s mantra of loyal, brave, and true.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Gong Li, Jet Li
Director: Niki Caro
Producers: Chris Bender, Jake Weiner, Jason Reed
Screenplay: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
Production Design: Grant Major
Costume Design: Bina Daigeler
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams

Editing: David Coulson
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: 4th September 2020 (Australia)

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