Like its titular hero, Mulan honors the spirit of its predecessor while breathing new life and ideas into the retelling of the classic Chinese folktale of a woman who goes to war to protect her family and country.
Based on the Chinese folktale the 1998 animated Mulan release was one of the fan favorites of the Disney Renaissance and one of many that have gone through the remake treatment. However, what it should be called is a re-imagining.
The story begins with the order of the Emperor (Jet Li) to build a mighty army to counter the Rouran invaders under Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his shape shifting witch Xian Lang (Gong Li) who are terrorizing the Silk Road. In order to protect her disabled father (Tzi Ma) from certain death on the battlefield, Mulan (Yifei Liu) steals his armor, sword, and conscription notice to take his place in the army. What follows is the story most know from the 1998 animated movie of a powerful woman saving China while challenging and changing the expectations of society’s gendered roles.
While it lacks the songs that made the animated movie so iconic (yes, I cried a little on the inside when I heard there would be no “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”), the melodies of a few still play as background and ambiance music. There are also plenty of callbacks to the original film like a few jokes and direct lines that are hidden — and not so hidden — during dialogue.
There is a lack of Mushu and Li Shang, but their presence was not needed. New characters fill the space left behind that are just as intriguing. The three friends Yao, Ling, and Chen Po come back as young soldiers in Mulan’s small circle of army friends. Shang is in fact split into two characters, the clear love interest Chen Honghui and the army’s commanding officer Commander Tung Each character shines through the dull colors of war, though I wish they had been given more screen time and more friendship bonding time.
On the subject of new characters, Gong Li’s performance as the villainous shape shifting Xian is breathtaking, her movements during fight scenes and the lines she delivered were some of my favorites in the movie. She is also a brilliant mirror character to Mulan as a woman challenging the role of a woman in society — only on the side of evil and an idea of what could happen if Mulan ever becomes bitter about "her place."
The action is very reminiscent of old martial arts movies. There are even the “whoosh” sounds from the punches, kicks, and weapon swings during action sequences. Not to mention there are martial arts masters performing like Donnie Yen and the aforementioned Jet Li. It is just a shame they are not given as much time to shine during battle sequences.
As for the battle scenes themselves, they stretch across the screen in a grand scale from the closed quarters to the large battlefield. Open plains with the mountains in the background as two armies clash below, it was an amazing set up.
The one downside is a lack of emotion from Mulan. It is understandable since she has to hide her identity as a woman among men, but it makes Yifei's performance seem a bit wooden. The other actors can pick up this slack, but where the animation excelled at showing emotions and expression, the live action version once again falls short due to a push for serious and stoic faces.
It is a shame the movie wasn’t released in theaters due to COVID since these scenes are so massive, but maybe in the future it will be able to be on a large screen that gives these scenes their due.
Currently only those who pay for Disney+ Premium can watch the movie. On December 4, Mulan will become available to all with a regular Disney+ subscription.