The live action remake of Mulan
is a strong example of what a remake should be. It retains the basic skeleton of the earlier movie (in this case, the 1998 animated Disney film), recreates some iconic moments, and also adds some new ideas. In this case, the movie also finds other ways to create its own identity, such as giving it the look and majesty of a Chinese war epic, and adding some thrilling and well choreographed fight scenes. It's still not going to replace the animated film in the heart of any fan, but in all honesty, this is probably the best remake we could have hoped for, and easily the best one Disney has done since 2016's criminally underrated Pete's Dragon
Unfortunately, the film is being hidden behind a $30 "Premiere Access" fee on the Disney+ subscription streaming service. What this means is that even if you are a current subscriber to the service, you cannot watch Mulan
unless you pay up the extra fee. Is it worth it? Given that this movie is currently the only thing you get with the Premiere Access, I would say hardly. Still, you do at least get unlimited access to it until the movie is set to leave Premiere Access on November 2nd. After that, the movie is going to be free to all subscribers a month later on December 4th. So, obviously, if you are a subscriber and can hold out until December 4th, that would be the smart thing to do. Disney claims that the whole Premiere Access thing is an experiment they may implement in the future. I say it's a way for the studio to make some extra money, given the current economic situation with the pandemic is bleeding them dry, and Mulan
was a very expensive movie for them to make, so they want to make some kind of extra profit off of it.
That bit of corporate greed aside, let's look at the film itself, which is an often dazzling mix of traditional storytelling and some truly inspiring special effects, along with some amazing stunt work. Throw in a cast of veteran actors, led by a star-making turn by Yifei Liu in the title role, and you have an absolute entertainment package that is kind of hard to resist. Some fans of the animated film have complained that the heart of the story is missing, but I could not disagree more. There is a very strong heart to be found here, and that is Mulan's journey from a young, playful prankster who likes to pick on her younger sister (a new addition to the story) and chase after runaway chickens, to a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind, and is a steal-willed warrior who can lead a small band of soldiers. This transformation is the center of director Niki Caro's (The Zookeeper's Wife
) vision, and it is consistently strong throughout the film.
As Mulan, Yifei Liu is put through a wide range of emotions. And while at certain points her emotions do seem just a little muted, or don't come across as strong as they should, she has just as many scenes of great emotional power, such as a scene late in the film when she finally collapses emotionally after everything she has had to endure to hide her identity. She also handles the many scenes where she has to partake in elaborate martial arts and horse-riding stunts with enormous energy. There are some thrilling images here, especially the recreation of the avalanche scene from the animated film. However, just watching the film's elaborate sets, like Mulan's home village, and the gorgeous details of the costumes is more than enough to make just looking at this a joy. This is easily the most beautiful of the live action Disney remakes, and Caro shows a remarkable eye for detail and color here.
As for the story, it's basically what you remember from the earlier effort, with some effective new elements added. And while the film does have a slightly less fantasy and comedy angle than you might remember (there are no wise-cracking dragons here), there are still plenty of fantastical elements, such as a shape-shifting witch named Xianniang (a wonderful Gong Li) who serves as not only a thrilling antagonist for the heroine, but also adds an extra emotional current to the story. Just like before, Mulan is a young girl who would rather race through the fields on her horse than settle down into the traditional role of a silent wife. Her father (Tzi Ma) is very proud of his brave girl, but he also knows that his wife (Rosalind Chao) is right when she tells him "a daughter brings honor through marriage".
Around this same time, a man by the name of Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) is gathering an army to overthrow the Emperor of China (Jet Li) in order to claim revenge on the death of his father, whom the Emperor killed years ago in an earlier uprising attempt. The imperial forces must build an army to combat Khan's growing forces, and asks that every family contribute one son to serve as a soldier. Since Mulan's family has no sons, her father (a wounded war veteran himself) decides to take up the call. Knowing that her father will be killed in battle, Mulan makes the brash decision to disguise herself as a man, and take his place in the army. The film explores her budding relationships with some of the soldiers, as long as her efforts not to bathe in front of the other men so that they won't find out the truth. (This leads to a running gag with the men frequently telling Mulan that she reeks.)
All of this will be familiar to fans of the earlier film, but the most exciting element that the screenwriters add is the addition of the previously mentioned sorceress, Xianniang. She is aiding Bori Khan in his mission, and uses her powers of magic to manipulate and control her enemies. However, she is not your standard villain, as the movie gives her a deep emotional core, as well as a personal connection to Mulan that makes things much more complicated when they meet in battle. Like the heroine, Xianniang is a woman who has largely been shunned because of her abilities. But then, when she begins to see her enemy being accepted by her fellow soldiers, even after Mulan has revealed her true identity to them, Xianniang feels some envy, because she knows she will never be accepted by Khan, who mostly views her as a servant. This not only adds an interesting layer to the story that previously was not there, but it makes the villains of the story much more interesting than before.
If I have any complaints regarding Mulan
, it is that I only wish I could have seen it the way it was intended, on the biggest screen possible. Having to watch it on a laptop screen remains a beautiful experience, but it definitely loses something. Niki Caro was going for a large epic here, and she definitely succeeded. It's harrowing, emotional, exciting, and ultimately a grand achievement. If you can hold out three months for when the movie will be released for all subscribers, I strongly recommend looking this up.