Strong-willed and strong-minded Mulan (Yifei Liu) yearns to be someone bar just an obedient daughter to her father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), who knows his daughter is growing up in a man’s world.
When the vengeful and evil warrior Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and shape-shifting witch Xianniang (Li Gong) plot to destroy the Emperor of China (Jet Li) and his land, an army is called to protect them.
Posing as a man, Mulan trains under Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) to be part of the army to take on Khan, but she will need to find the courage to be true to herself and be the warrior she was always meant to be…
Having not seen the 1998 animated original, this tale of Chinese folklore was free from expectation; no singing and dancing, no eye-popping colours and no Eddie Murphy. If anything, this removed the safety blanket of the House of Mouse and enabled a fresh look at a film that, as Disney-fied as it is, offers a welcome glimpse into ancient Chinese legend. Mulan finally found its way to a release via Disney+, sadly pushed back and out of cinemas by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Liu Yifei is hard to fault as our heroine, conveying the right balance of young boyish looks and steeled feminine guile to be convincing as a young woman trying to fight in a man’s world. If ever there is a time for equality, it’s now in 2020. Yifei handles herself well with the required action and drama, and while she never seems to really flourish or be easy to invest in until the finale, she is hard not to see as Mulan as Disney imagined. It’s almost poetic that when she sheds her armour and disguise as a man, Mulan seems to come to life more, with Yifei able to really sell herself as a strong woman fighting for the good of her family, her fellow soldiers and her country. This is all about being true to yourself and your family, regardless of what society and others may expect of you in order to be somebody.
The messages that are capital to Disney films are not lost here, even if the action and overall content is a little more adult and darker in how it comes over. The violence is more real and savage, but thankfully without blood or gore. It’s a war film told without song and vibrant colour, but retains the threads of innocence that only Disney can channel in a film based so much on Chinese folklore, family and friendship.
The supporting cast around Yifei all work to bring both adapted and original characters to life in a much more authentic way by casting Asian/Americans in the roles. Donnie Yen and Tzi Ma bring some real veteran skill in both acting and martial arts to the roster of characters, and Jason Scott Lee gives it all he can as the brutal Bori Khan, a man as strong as fast and powerful as any warrior who is out to destroy the peace that China strives to hold. Yet while these characters mostly fail to be anything memorable or leap from the screen, Gong Li as witch Xianniang (originally pet falcon Hayabusa) adds some energy and magic to her scenes, shape-shifting and using manipulated laws of physics for her entertaining moments of action and combat. She also is one of the few to share some heartfelt scenes with Mulan herself, adding something to her journey rather than just a disposable face.
It’s a shame that Mulan may not reach a wide theatrical audience, for what it lacks in heart, it makes up for in visuals. Cinematographer Mandy Walker works to capture the fantastical Chinese landscapes, be it small village hamlets, grand temples, snow-capped mountains, or torch-lit garrisons of war. Rich golds, oranges, reds, and browns shimmer with a stark contrast in a very fantastical looking design. If only Disney would be as authentic to have a Chinese audio track, it would be an absorbing look at a slice of Chinese folklore about one of their greatest heroines. Yet the costumes, props, and score by composer Harry Gregson-Williams do not fail to bring ancient China to life in a very grand way. Sometimes you can just see that glorious, animated visions of Disney bleed onto the screen, especially in scenes surrounding Jet Li as the Emperor.
For the first act, this is mostly sly family fun with gentle humour and character establishing. The second turns into a wartime drama; training, proving yourself, and learning what it means to be a man…or woman. The third turns into a CG-fuelled battle to save a ravaged nation, discovering what it means to be someone for what is right. And all under 2 hours, it’s brisk enough but never really becomes what it could be. The one strength throughout is the visualisation and celebration of Asian and Chinese culture; something we deserve more of on the big (and small) screen in both acting, storytelling and film-making.
Animated tales take an often ordinary, basic story and energise, ignite and remodel them for new audiences and new generations to capture imaginations and hearts. Mulan’s story has always been a very brave, meaningful and real story to tell, and the animated version allowed many to experience it in an entertaining Disney bubble, but somehow learn from it while watching. This live-action adaptation, while stylish in action and choreography, fails to have any real magic about it and certainly loses some of that grandeur on the small screen.
Dir: Niki Caro
Scr: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin
Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Gong Li, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Jet Li
Prd: Chris Bender, Jake Weiner & Jason T. Reed
DoP: Mandy Walker
Runtime: 115 minutes
Mulan is a Walt Disney Pictures production and available to stream on Disney+ Premier Access for £19.99