The beloved animated movie “Mulan” from the ‘90s is the silly, cheerful original of the live-action film released this year. This new version of the classic children’s movie is empowering, alive and a vital film that should’ve been made sooner. The origins of the “Mulan” story date back to 15th century China but are still very relevant today.
Director Niki Caro’s live-action adaptation of the classic story of a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man to fight in place of her father in war is an ongoing thrill from the beginning to the end. It’s immersed in traditional Chinese culture, showing a realistic way Chinese women would meet with a matchmaker and learn the proper ways to be a “good wife.” Each character in “Mulan” is accurately ethnically represented, which has been uncommon for previous Disney live-action films.
The film is brilliantly detailed, aesthetically pleasing, filled with dazzlingly modern special effects and includes such thrilling action sequences; I was tempted to try out a backflip after watching, which probably wouldn’t have ended well. If you’re in the mood for gravity-defying, atmospheric aerial work and choreographed martial art battles, then this is the movie to stream. The older actors and actresses in “Mulan” help to keep the abundance of action grounded. The impressive cast includes Liu Yifei — Mulan, Donnie Yen — Commander Tung, Jet Li — The Emperor of China and Gong Li — Xian Lang.
Invaders led by the nefarious Bori Khan — Jason Scott Lee — threaten the emperor — Jet Li, so the royal army spreads out across China to assemble soldiers to protect the palace and defeat the Huns, gathering one man from each family.
Mulan’s family has no sons, so her father — an elderly disabled warrior himself — must fight to maintain honor for his family and ancestors. In place of him, Mulan disappears in the darkness of the night, reporting for duty to the harsh commander — Yen, with her hair pulled back and her voice slightly masculinized. Of course, Mulan must find intricate ways to dodge changing and showering in front of her fellow soldiers, including the dapper Honghui — Yoson An, with whom she finds to have some excitement and chemistry buried away for. She also finds herself in a trial to avoid the shapeshifting sorceress Xianniang —Gong Li, Bori Khan’s frightening right-hand woman, whose character was not featured in the animated version. Although she has a very evil essence, she and Mulan have a lot in common as they are both powerful women, and their relationship in the film gives an appealing, feminist sparkle.
Mulan transforms herself from being an audacious, eager rebel to a mature, strong commanding leader. Over this journey, she finds her voice and stands up for the people she loves. She did, in fact, bring honor to her family in a more untraditional way, as in 15th century China, the only real way a woman could bring honor to her family was by marrying well.
“Mulan” is an empowering story no matter the time period or place it’s viewed in. Liu’s performance could’ve been even more empowering if she had shown a bit more emotion and personality, but the stern physicality and stable power she presented displays a more authentic warrior.
Caro, a female director, was the perfect choice to bring the original story to life. Caro intertwines the poetic story of Mulan with the ‘90s animated version — although no sarcastic, tiny dragon is included for comedic relief — and it resulted in a beautiful, much needed live-action display of women empowerment and cultural artistry.
“Mulan” is not like other Disney live-action versions of animated films. It adds a unique touch of culture and strength unlike any other. Caro’s take on this tale is a great balance of family-friendly action and the evident spirit of women standing up for themselves, demanding that men hear them and listen.
While watching this film, there were many instances where I wished I was in theaters to enjoy the large display of choreographed action and vigorous surround sound. As gorgeous as watching “Mulan” was at home on my 24” television, the work of countless women behind the scenes, such as cinematographer Mandy Walker and costume designer Bina Daigeler, deserved to be viewed in a much more authentic way.
Thanks to the global pandemic, this was not an experience available for viewers. The expected release date was March 27 but was postponed by six months only to be released on Disney +, with a $30 viewing fee along with the monthly subscription — yikes. Nonetheless, the core of “Mulan” remained familiar and intimate, leaving me with a sense of nostalgia and childlike hope.
But, the movie seemed to lose some momentum, as the plot against the emperor is one of the main focuses for over half the film. Although it’s the narrative machinery that floors Mulan’s immaculate transformation, it gets articulated and chatty, and it’s not even close to being as fascinating as Mulan’s eventual recognition of her evident inner strength.
When the fierce Xianniang finally meets Mulan in the midst of battle, she wisely tells Mulan, “Your deceit weakens you. It poisons your qi.”
This powerful statement could easily be overlooked by anyone mindlessly watching the film, but because her feminine strength has always made her an outcast in this world controlled by men, she notices that Mulan can’t achieve her full power until she’s fully truthful about who she really is: a woman. This brief conversation leaves the relationship between the two characters to be a beautiful love-hate dynamic, similar to Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
When Mulan finally lets her hair down, literally, it’s a deposition of self-reliance and a heartwarming moment of self-love. The score “Reflection” from the 1998 animated version highlights the key moments of Mulan’s final climax of independence, nostalgically referencing back to the animated version that means so much to many. Mulan — loyal, brave and true — on her own terms.