Director Niki Caro
Screenplay Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin based on Disney’s Mulan by Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook and Ballad of Mulan by Guo Maoqian
Starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Gong Li, Jet Li
One of the things about Disney live action films is, the more they try to pay homage to the look of the original animated feature, the more like a cartoon the movie begins to look. One of the great things about the original in this case, is other than Eddie Murphy’s effective portrayal as sidekicks Mushu (played by Eddie Murphy), a lucky cricket and her dog “Little Brother,” the story is ready made for a live action treatment.
This version dispenses of the sidekicks, but keeps the same general story. One important addition is the immeasurably haunting Gong Li as Xian Lang, adding an element to the Hayabusa falcon from the original. This one mystical, yet grounded character brings an element of dangerous majesty that helps elevate Mulan to a story equal to its predecessor.
For the uninitiated, China’s empire is under attack and the Emperor decrees that every family send one son to join the army to resist the horde coming through silk road. Mulan’s father, an invalid, decides he will represent the family, Before he can go, Mulan steals away with his sword and gear, then heads to the training ground.
The training goes well, even though she must hide her identity as a woman. There is the barest hint of romance with Chen Honghui (An), but, much to the happiness of my daughter, Mulan never kisses him. There is a twist on the hygiene / bathing storyline from the original. There is a montage, though not as comical, it still has elements of humor, though it’s not ham-handed as the animated version.
Donnie Yen is remarkable as the commander, as it’s a genuine chance to present his skill without necessarily showing up Yifei’s Mulan. He’s not the only martial arts master hidden in the film. The Emperor is played by Jet Li, who has a couple of really nice scenes himself.
Gong Li is immaculately powerful, and Li presents her as an incredibly dangerous, powerful and soul-broken nemesis for Mulan. She provides the mirror image of a “witch,” whose capabilities are kept in the dark for the sake of keeping honor within the Chinese social hierarchy. Her sadly beautiful demeanor provides a vision of a fearsome power seemingly kept in check by the powers that view themselves as the top of the social ladder.
Yifei puts on a show. She has the physicality right off, which is a nice change of pace from the original. She also has incredible beauty that only augments her skills. Her ability to mix poignant moments with action keeps the story moving forward with poise and dignity.
Jason Scott Lee looks the part of antagonist Rouran. He’s actually somewhat menacing. The challenge of a film that is PG-13 limits the potential for actual menace. We know things can’t ever look too violent. The artistic design and excellent cinematography is beautiful. The closest they get to blood and gore is a carefully staged scene that looks more like a collection of props than anything.
Most of the film looks beautiful, however. This will be a serious contender coming awards season for many artistic categories. While there is nothing here that approaches the scenes with the avalanche, there are no shots that aren’t beautiful or somewhat daunting, especially when Gong Li is involved.
One of the saddest aspects of the Corona virus is that it took what promised to be a big year in cinema for women and pushed it to the side. Wonder Woman ’84, Black Widow and this film should have been huge, but now they have been pushed into uncertain futures. Disney did something extraordinarily groundbreaking in releasing it through their streaming service, but the film sure could have used a gigantic screen to show off such good work.
This is not a perfect film, but it’s a damn entertaining one. Mulan gives as forceful a message for equality as one can give without pandering whatsoever. If storytelling can evolve to not feel political, while delivering influential messages more often like this, we have much to look forward to in the future.
(****1/2 out of *****)