Death. Taxes. And Disney’s live action remakes have not only been consistent in their recurrence, but their theft, too. The remakes all range in quality: from the total inoffensiveness of Dumbo to money grab, shot-for-shot re-do of The Lion King. The prior “experiments” typically lack the bravery to veer away from their respective animated tale’s familiar formula. But when Disney announced Mulan, and made clear the stark differences between the 1998 classic and this new iteration: no quirky comedic relief like Mushu or musical numbers—my intrigue quickly grew.
While much controversy has swirled around the film—Niki Caro’s misguided statement for why an Asian director wouldn’t be given the reigns to the film; star Liu Yifei’s support of China’s suppressive government; and the move from a theatrical release to Disney+—Mulan soars above the fray. Caro’s live action remake of the beloved children’s movie is unique, captivating, and gorgeous.
Mulan as a character remains the same: She’s the daughter of Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma)—a retired soldier with a pestering old war wound—and doesn’t quite fit in with the women of her era. Rather than a docile, hopeful bride, she values individuality; intelligence; and outspokenness. Though admirable, her beliefs run counter to her duty. She must marry in order to uphold the family honor. A key difference: Caro builds out Mulan’s family by adding a younger sister Hua Xiu (Xana Tang) in addition to her mother (Rosalind Chao). The inclusion gives greater emotional range to her family life by portraying other facets of Chinese women. But when Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a Rouran warrior leader, invades China to avenge his father’s death, Zhou is called into service again. Knowing her father wouldn’t survive in war due to his wound, she commandeers his armor and sword, rides off to join the army, and poses as his son.
Intriguingly, here, Mulan isn’t your prototypical Disney princess. For instance, in the animated version, Captain Li Shang exists as a clear love interest. In this newest iteration, Caro and screenwriters split him into two separate characters: the stoic Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and the charismatic Chen Honghui (Yoson An). The latter instantly fits the romantic mold, but Caro plays with audience expectations for a distinct ending. Mulan retains an animal guardian, but instead of a talking dragon, it’s a flying voiceless phoenix. In this sense, the story solely focuses on her rather than her supporting male characters.
However, the supporting characters still lack development. For instance, Commander Tung never progresses past a few stone-faced grunts. And though the Emperor doesn’t espouse fortune cookie sayings—a marked improvement—Jet Li is totally underutilized as a totemic image of resoluteness. Mulan’s dorky army friends: Ling (Jimmy Wong); Chien-Po (Doua Moua); and Yao (Chen Tang)—regress from the dynamic comic reliefs of the animated version to fairly static individuals. In some respect, the reedy characters are emblematic of the uphill battle this non-musical faces. Songs like “A Girl Worth Fighting For” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” did the expositional work that would usually require full acts. Though Harry Gregson-Williams’ robust score makes odes to these tunes, Caro struggles to furnish the same type of character development without the musical numbers.
But the addition of Xian Lang (Gong Li)—a shape shifting witch on the side of Khan—gives the action flick fresh emotional depth. Bitter and vengeful, like Mulan, Lang doesn’t fit into China’s conception of a woman. Instead, men persecute her because of her literal power. One could imagine how Mulan might follow a similar path—through the dark side—if not given an opportunity to be herself. Their intertwining arcs—a symbolic ying and yang—make this live action movie into a singular story of female empowerment, albeit a surface-level one.
Bina Daigeler’s elaborate and vivid costume designs imbue practicality with style, especially with regards to Mulan. Her battle attire allows for a full-range of motion, while even her match-making dress—a still lively and comedic scene here—is less stringent than most wrapped attire. In the battle sequences the makeup is gritty. In the matching-making scene it’s graceful. Both evoke the uneven ways this character straddles two different worlds: the unease of bridal functions as opposed to the comfortability of fighting.
Mandy Walker’s beautiful photography also enlivens the eyes. Her lens soaks up the vibrancy of the people and the action pieces’ gorgeous set designs, and evocatively captures the film’s elaborate battle sequences, such as the first confrontation against Khan amongst the snowy mountain peaks. The mountain skirmish features creative swordplay and eye-opening spear work with fits of captivating violence. And though the avalanche scene lacks the flair, scope, and drama of the animated iteration, every other battle component zings. Most of all, Yifei astounds. Rugged yet elegant, her Mulan carries the same emotional weight of the prior with a greater dramatic punch. The final scene, when she reunites with her father still packs an identical sincerity.
Mulan shouldn’t solely be put in direct comparison to the 1998′ version, but should be judged based on how the changes work for its respective vision. The 1998 cartoon was a great musical, but even without the show stopping tunes, the new live-action still finds the same heart as the cartoon, even while trying something different. Rousing and endearing, Caro’s Mulan is more than the bare minimum found in other live action re-dos, it’s the level of excellence these remakes should be striving for from now on.
Mulan will be available on Disney+ beginning September 4th.