Mulan has always been one of Disney’s toughest characters. She’s a proud woman with a big heart, and director Niki Caro’s live action remake finally gives her the chance to be something else too: an action hero.
There’s a lot more to Mulan than the fights, but I’ll give Disney and the film’s creative team credit for making a film that puts a strong woman in the position to kick butt, with a story that’s compelling, and far truer to the original, with an all-Asian cast. The film could have been stronger in places, but it’s also a movie that draws you in, and carries you on Mulan’s epic journey.
(Plus, there’s a great side story about women supporting women, that adds a twist to the story, with a character I wish had an even bigger part.)
Liu Yifei stars as Mulan, a young, headstrong, and carefree woman who learned everything she knows from her father, Hua Zhou, played by the great Tzi Ma.
He has taught her to fight, and given her room to be herself, but even he finally admits one day that the force of her spirit–her ch’i–is powerful, and she shouldn’t be showing it off or the village is going to call her a witch. In these days, that’s a very bad thing.
Above all else, honour should come first, she’s told, and as one village elder says, “Quiet, composed, graceful, elegant, poised, polite. These are the qualities we see in a good wife.”
When an army rises up, working with a powerful witch–Xian Lang, played by Gong Li–the Emperor calls upon every family to send a man to protect the country, and since Mulan’s father has no sons, he is the one who must go off to war.
Mulan won’t accept that though, and in the middle of the night, she puts on his armour, takes his sword and conscript, and heads off to be the hero she’s meant to be.
Once Mulan arrives at camp, the film does follow a few of the same points as the original animated film, but there are a lot of surprises. We’re never fully given the chance to get to know Mulan’s group of fellow recruits, but the bright side is that there are far bigger and better action sequences.
And the action is totally impressive. From the little one-on-one fight scenes, to the big battles between dozens of warriors, Mulan looks glorious, beautiful, and the sequences are absolutely stunning. I can’t say how accurate the sets and set pieces were, but they looked amazing.
I’m also no expert on martial arts films, but Mulan seems to pay homage to a lot of classics. One scene has Xian Lang attacking a village, and it reminded me a lot of the incredible House of Flying Daggers.
Mulan stands to find a whole new audience, in part because it feels so much more authentic, and because of the way it delivers so much action in under 2 hours. I didn’t miss any of the songs, although I did appreciate the nods the film makes to “My Reflection” at a few key points.
I also loved how much time the film spends with the imagery of the Phoenix. The Phoenix is powerful, feminine, beautiful, and filled with virtue and grace. The mythical bird is also a symbol of balance, and represents the beginning of a new era, and that feels like one of the most important notes in the story.
This film, its star, story, and cast represent something we don’t see enough of from Hollywood.
And that brings me back to the cast. Within Mulan’s team, Yoson An as Chen Hongui is fantastic, but his character–based on Captain Li Shang–definitely has been cut back a bit from the original. Likewise, the Rouran Army is sketched out only vaguely, but the storytelling angle has left far more room to focus on Xian Lang, and she’s the best new new character in the film.
She’s an obvious counterpart to Mulan, and like our hero, she’s been forced into the war, but instead she serves the villain, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Xian Lang is also the only person in the film who tells Mulan to be herself, and that’s a fantastic moment in the story.
On top of the action, and some of the subtleties, Mulan works because the film is brutally honest about how women are treated, and have been treated, but it’s also positive about change. The two women are the strongest warriors, and in the end, that’s what the whole story comes back to. It’s an empowerment story that feels incredibly genuine.
I would have loved to see more scenes like the opening, where a young Mulan, played by Crystal Rao, chases a chicken across the village and up to the roof. The tea scene is also, frankly, one of my favourite moments in the whole film. Those light moments go by far too quickly, but overall the film uses Mulan’s fierce determination to show us who she is and what she stands for.
Mulan deserved better writing, but Caro’s direction is fantastic, and she sets a tone, style, and mood that is instantly recognizable and iconic. I’m very eager to see what she works on next.
For families, I will say that Mulan is definitely the most violent film I’ve seen from Disney, so it’s safe to say it’s not for young kids. If you’re looking for a general recommendation, I’d suggest kids should be at least 8 or 10 years old to see the film, depending on how you feel about violence. A number of people are hit with arrows throughout the film, plus there are sword fights, and other violence.
In Canada, you can watch Mulan on Disney+ for $34.99, and while that’s a bigger price tag for a digital movie, it’s definitely worth it. Get your circle together, grab the popcorn, and enjoy this new action film that’s bound to be a classic in no time.
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