The first Disney animated movie I remember seeing in theaters was MULAN. If I’m honest, it was also my first exposure to Chinese culture. The film would plant the seed for what would ultimately lead to me one day graduating with a degree in Chinese. It wasn’t until college that I would discover Mulan was not an original Disney character, but a character that had been adapted from a centuries-old story. A story about a loyal daughter who is willing to sacrifice her life in order to protect her father and family. This story has come to be adapted in a variety of ways since its inception. Now Disney is returning to reimagine the tale once more with Niki Caro’s live-action adaptation of MULAN.
The film is directed by Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife, Whale Rider) from a screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin suggested by the narrative poem “The Ballad of Mulan.” MULAN features a celebrated international cast that includes: Yifei Liu (Never Gone, Once Upon a Time) as Mulan; Donnie Yen (Rogue One, Iceman: The Time Traveler) as Commander Tung; Jason Scott Lee (Lilo & Stitch, The Jungle Book) as Böri Khan; Yoson An (Dead Lucky, Ghost Bride) as Cheng Honghui; with Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha, Hannibal Rising) as Xianniang and Jet Li (The Expendables franchise, League of Gods) as the Emperor.
We are introduced to the titular character as a youth, with the film quickly establishing her as a girl considered different from what society wants her to be. She’s rambunctious, active, and full of qi. However, these are not good qualities in a woman if she wants to bring honor to the family. No, she must fight against these traits to secure a good marriage match. We jump forward in time. China is under siege by the Rouran led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee). He is aided by the shape-shifting sorceress Xianniang (Gong Li). The Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree that one man per family must serve the country from Northern invaders. Once news reaches Mulan’s village, she steps in to take place of her weakened father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), despite his wishes.
Women are barred from fighting for the Emperor. Only men can serve. So, Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a man, Hua Jun, in order to successfully pass in the army. Presented with difficulties that almost blow her cover, she is tested along the way. Fighting with the need to restrain herself from showing her true potential, it takes time. However, with time and further training, she starts to allow herself to feel comfortable unleashing her strength and skills with her fellow soldiers. The journey that unfolds for Hua Mulan is one of self-discovery. One of discovering her true self and finding her place in a nation that has buckled under the notion of a woman’s place outside of marriage. And, ultimately, one of embracing the power and strength she has held back for so long. It is in this story that we see her grow from a woman to an esteemed warrior and, ultimately, becoming a daughter who brings honor to her family and father.
The writing in MULAN is the key element that pulls it all together. There have been a variety of adaptations so far, with the 1998 Disney film being one of them. And, with a good amount of Disney live-action adaptations sinking rather than swimming, the writing had to be strong to reassure audiences. Fortunately, the screenwriters managed to hit that perfect mixture needed to lift up this adaptation. The plot itself follows a similar path to the animated film. However, there are tweaks and changes that make it unique and standout. One such familiar element that hits you is Gong Li’s character, Xianniang. The falcon that stands beside Shan Yu in the animated film has been transformed into a powerful sorceress and foil to Hua Mulan. This change was unexpected but proves to push the plot forward to new places that many will appreciate. For fans of the animated film, there are also various homages interspersed throughout for your enjoyment, including a nice cameo at the end that you all will appreciate. And, really, these homages interwoven in the new story help rather than alienate the fans in the end while not detracting away from the overall story.
One of the ways the writing was used to add and expand upon the story was the creation of new characters. I mentioned previously about the development and expansion of the falcon character, XIanniang, which contributed significantly to the story. Another decision made was to create two characters based on Li Shang from the 1998 animated film. The creation of Commander Tung, played by Donnie Yen, and Cheng Honghui, played by Yoson An, assisted in allowing us to see different facets of Hua Mulan’s interactions with the soldiers. Tung’s authority and paternal advice provide her with the wisdom she needed to look into herself. But he’s also representative of the old way of thinking. Cheng Honghui is close in age and more equal in terms of footing. They are both learning and discovering themselves together in war. And, when the time comes later on in the film, he represents a more progressive way of thinking when it comes to allowing a woman to fight alongside them.
While new characters helped expand upon the story we all know, MULAN would be nothing without its familiar faces. Liu Yifei’s Hua Mulan is notably athletic. Her differences in contrast to what Chinese society wants from her as a woman clash. She is in a constant struggle to conform and this struggle to suppress her true self carries throughout the film. Liu Yifei’s handling of the internal struggle captures the complexities needed to make the character relatable for audiences. It is also the relationship with her father, Hua Zhou, that launches everything. Tzi Ma captures the struggle of a father who is proud of the warrior spirit he can plainly see in his daughter. However, he is expected to keep her in line with what is proper for a woman in his society. If she does not make a marriage match, it brings dishonor to the family name. While the film is very much about Hua Mulan and her journey, the importance of her loyalty and love for her father cannot be disregarded.
Visually, MULAN is absolutely breathtaking. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is to die for. Niki Caro’s sweeping shots capturing everything from locations to battles to Mulan on horseback are beautiful. You can tell that everyone worked together to create something so visually incredible that, even if you didn’t like the film, you can at least step back and acknowledge the visual splendor of it all. The production design and locations reflected on film provide distinct contrasts between the regions audiences get to visit throughout the film. From the Silk Road to the Imperial Palace to the Fujian Tulou that makes up Mulan’s village, we get to go on this exciting visual journey. The icing on the cake is the impeccably detailed costume designs and visual palettes used by Bina Daigeler. These too are a journey in character development and expression, with the biggest highlight for me being the costuming for Xianniang.
If you were wondering why this iteration of Disney’s MULAN has a PG-13 rating, I would immediately point you to the battle sequences. While I distinctly remember the impact of the animated film introducing us then kids to the horrors of war, this film expands upon that notion. We get to see the real stakes of war, with soldiers being felled by arrows and slashed away. From the training sequences to Hua Mulan facing off against her opponents, there’s not much spared in terms of the fight scenes. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on how exquisitely choreographed the scenes are. With the scale of some of the battles, it could easily have gone completely awry in terms of execution. But the team involved absolutely nailed it. The battle and fight scenes will take your breath away and will have you on edge.
One of the elements from the animated film that some fans may complain about is the lack of songs. I totally get that because I fondly recall the songs from the animated film. Who can forget “Reflection” or “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”? However, with the way Niki Caro has handled the film, I have to say that this iteration of MULAN doesn’t need the songs. In terms of capturing the realism and seriousness of the war-like atmosphere onscreen, it would honestly detract from the film’s final product. That does not mean, though, that the songs are gone and forgotten. No, they are honored throughout the course of the film’s score crafted by Harry Gregson-Williams. Elements of “Reflection” play throughout the film and, when you recognize it, it’s like a soothing, comforting blanket that wraps around you. It is reassuring, yet doesn’t detract away from what’s happening onscreen in the way an actual song performance might.
Honestly, Niki Caro’s MULAN is the best live-action adaptation that Disney has accomplished so far. By combining elements from the 1998 animated film and expanding further on the story, this adaptation is distinct enough to set it apart from its predecessor. Breathtaking cinematography, gorgeously detailed costumes, the epic battle sequences, and the acting performances from both the main and supporting cast come together to create a delicious adaptation for audiences – both new and familiar – to the tale to enjoy. I ask for audiences who want it to be exactly like the animated film to give this one a chance. This film brings honor to us all.
Starting September 4, with Premier Access, viewers can watch MULAN before it’s available to all Disney+ subscribers. However, MULAN will be available for all subscribers with no extra cost by December 4, 2020.
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