Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 3rd, 2020
Mulan (Niki Caro, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
I confess to not understanding, in any way, the need for live-action (or, more often, “photorealistic” CGI) remakes of Disney’s animated canon. Beyond the mercenary, that is; who does not grasp the concept of wanting more money? It’s one thing to take a well-known tale like Sleeping Beauty and reconceive it from the point of view of its villain, as with the highly engaging 2014 Maleficent, but its quite another to just redo the thing with a different look. Though the 2016 The Jungle Book had its moments, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast dragged on for far too long, adding further backstory where none was necessary. The 2019 The Lion King could be especially hard to watch, in places, the “uncanny valley” nature of its digital aesthetic turning formerly cute creatures into off-putting monsters. The 2015 Cinderella and 2019 Aladdin both worked much better, thanks in no small part to their focus on actual live actors accompanied by digital effects, rather than the reverse equation (though the latter failed to reconcile all the colonial and racist tropes of the original). Now comes Mulan, adapted from its 1998 source, and I am happy to report that it, too, mostly gets the balance right, buoyed by strong performances that dominate the visuals (which also impress), instead of the other way around. It’s a good show.
Actress Yifei Liu (Once Upon a Time) plays the titular character. For those in need of a refresher, Mulan is the eldest daughter of a family without boys, living in Imperial China of the Han Dynasty, who goes to war against an invading enemy in her infirm, elderly father’s place, sneaking off to army training disguised as a young man, risking dishonor (and worse) should she be discovered. By the time her ruse is found out, she has already established herself as the best warrior in the squadron, and eventually saves the day. Yes, that’s a plot spoiler, but this is Disney, so come on … beyond the fate of Bambi’s mother, things usually end fairly well.
In the animated version, the enemy is “the Huns,” who cross over the Great Wall of China and score victory after victory, threatening the empire. Here, they are “the Rourans,” led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny), a man whose father was killed years ago by the present-day emperor. Assisted by a powerful witch, Xianniang (the ever-marvelous Li Gong, Saturday Fiction), Böri Khan is virtually unstoppable. Until, that is, Mulan finds her path.
Or rather, learns to focus her “chi.” Though the previous version had its share of supernatural elements surrounding Mulan’s ancestral spirit guide (absent in the new film), it did not imbue Mulan, herself, nor the Huns, with special powers. In the 2020 Mulan, beyond Xianniang – who can inhabit other’s bodies and manipulate the laws of physics at seeming will (yet is somehow beholden to Böri Khan) – there is also the question of our protagonist’s own enhanced skills, built into her DNA, that allow her enhanced prowess on the battlefield (and make Xianniang want to recruit her). Given that she is told by her father (Tzi Ma, The Farewell), that her “chi is strong, but chi is for warriors, not daughters,” this fresh detail lends the new story even greater feminist resonance. The evidence has always been there (as we see in an initial prologue) that Mulan holds great power. Why, then, should she be relegated to a subservient societal role because of her gender?
Director Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) handles the fight scenes (complete with the usual floating climbs and leaps that are the hallmark of Chinese martial-arts films) and dramatic moments with equal aplomb, though some of the additional effects, like a recurring phoenix bird, feel less well-designed. The ensemble cast is solid, even if none of the army-training section is particularly novel or inspired. Though the plot, despite the aforementioned changes, is basically the same as that of the first movie, this is a more-than-watchable adaptation. I may still not buy the need for these revisitations in the first place, but if they are all like Mulan, then they do more good than harm.