“Mulan” a beautiful … and original … live-action reading of the Disney classic

AT A GLANCE

Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao

Rated: PG-13

Available: Stream now with Premiere Access on Disney+ (cost is $29.99, plus a Disney+ subscription). On Dec. 4, the movie will become available to Disney+ subscribers without the additional $29.99 fee 

Critical rating: 3½ stars out of 4

Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises
Yifei Liu plays the title character in “Mulan,” Disney’s update of the animated classic.

By Forrest Hartman

First, it’s important for readers to know that I am, generally, a fan of Disney’s live-action remakes of animated classics. There is a school of thought that sees virtually every remake as unnecessary, and many amongst that crowd seem particularly invested in shaming the Mouse House for its continual returns to the well. I get the reasoning. Why mess with art that worked the first time around? The obvious answer is that – assuming said art has value – one can open it to new generations and perhaps even expand the appreciation of those who loved it initially.  

By presenting a classic work through a new lens, artists can explore new ideas, flesh out previously squandered sub-themes and occasionally reframe a work altogether. Shakespeare festivals and theatrical directors have made an industry of this, and nobody complains because the results are so often sublime. 

Personally, I find the transition from animation to live-action particularly rewarding. The two forms can tread the same ground … but the viewing experience is inherently different. With animation, we are separated from the characters in a visceral sense. This – along with the ability to hyper-stylize settings – allows artists to easily transition to the realm of fable. Advances in special effects have aided live-action filmmakers in this regard, but there is no denying that human actors, for lack of a better word, “humanize” the works they touch. Disney has exploited this possibility both successfully (think “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella”) and stutteringly (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Dumbo”). 

With “Mulan,” one must start by noting that the story is not really Disney’s. The plot comes from a centuries-old Chinese folk tale about a female warrior who poses as a man in order to take her father’s place in combat. Despite the lengthy history – and the non-Disney films the story has inspired – it’s the success of the 1998 animated musical that most modern Americans remember. 

Curiously, Disney and director Niki Caro decided to stray substantially from the foundation laid by the 1998 film. This “Mulan” is not a musical, and it is decidedly more realistic than its predecessor. This may be distressing for those hoping for a faithful adaptation – ala “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) – but the differences are refreshing. This “Mulan” is many things, including a family drama, a tale of female empowerment and a rather beautiful martial arts adventure. That these elements are not routinely merged, works in the movie’s favor, as does Yifei Liu, a 33-year-old actress who successfully passes as a teenager.

In the U.S., Liu is probably best known for publicly endorsing the Hong Kong police and, thus, creating headlines and unintentionally inspiring a #BoycottMulan movement before her film was even ready for release. Although this movement has gained steam with the film’s streaming debut, I predict the actress’s performance will outshine the controversy. Regardless of how one feels about her politics, Liu is a talent, and her embodiment of “Mulan” is striking. 

This live-action retelling reinforces how difficult it would be for a woman to successfully pass as a man in a military setting. In fact, one scene spawned memories of the wonderful 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” featuring Hilary Swank as a transgender man struggling to present himself to the world. This version of “Mulan” is not, however, solely interested in the complexities of identity. It is interested in attacking social structures that paint women as less capable than men. This theme plays out not only in Mulan’s story, but in a subplot about a powerful witch named Xianniang (Li Gong). Both Mulan and Xianniang – although on opposite sides – know oppression. 

As in the Disney cartoon – and the folk tale before it – Mulan enters the military to fulfill a duty asked of her father (Tzi Ma). Although he agrees to go to war, Mulan knows that he is too old, so she sneaks away, pretending to represent her family as a son. Her spirit, skill with martial arts and powerful chi soon prove she is the most powerful soldier in her unit. 

Although Mulan is thematically interested in big ideas, including charachter and equality, it is also a fine fantasy film filled with beautifully crafted martial arts sequences. Caro’s previous directorial efforts – including the wonderful 2002 drama “Whale Rider” – demonstrate her ability to build empathy for characters, but they don’t hint at the level of skill with which she tackles action. Some of the battle sequences in Mulan are reminiscent of pure martial arts movies, including the wonderful 2000 effort “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise since a number of fine martial artists were involved, Donnie Yen and Jet Li amongst them. The excellent battle footage adds a dynamic edge to the movie, making it easier to invest oneself in the combat than is possible in an animated film. 

Ultimately, it is difficult to say whether the live action “Mulan” is better than its animated predecessor. Fortunately, one needn’t make that assessment. This “Mulan” is its own creation, significantly changed, yet thoroughly pleasing to watch.  

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