Disney’s live-action Mulan has its heart in the right place but can’t quite capture the magic of its animated predecessor.
When the live-action Mulan was announced, it fell into a Disney fanbase who had, shall we say, live-action remake fatigue and then raised questions when it was announced that it wouldn’t be a musical or feature Mushu. So it’s fair to say Niki Caro’s adaptation had an uphill climb from the beginning. Add in the delays due to COVID and the choice to release the film for a premium $29.99 on Disney Plus and things get a little… interesting.
Because I always like to start with the positives, there’s a lot to like about this new Mulan. Liu Yifei is perfectly cast. It feels like she IS Mulan; a mix of steel and silk, she fights effortlessly and flawlessly while being vulnerable and tough as nails. I know, I know, but it’s true.
The casting across the board feels spot-on. Jason Scott Lee embraces his villainous side as Bori Khan, leader of the Rouron. Li Gong carves unwritten facets into Xianniang. Yosun An charms as Honghui who plays the love interest side of the character split of Shang from the animated film while Donnie Yen takes on the commanding officer side of that equation and delivers as only he can.
Caro also delivers on the look of the film. The fights, the cinematography, the colors, the scope, all of them feel epic and timeless. There’s love in all of it and it’s clear Caro knew exactly what she was looking for — all of it showed up on screen.
Caro also finds ways to infuse moments from the animated film, specifically creatures (both the cricket and Mushu are there if you squint) and the matchmaker scene we’re all so familiar with. But there are nods to the film throughout if you know where to look.
This live-action Mulan also explores new sides of the Hua Mulan story. The Huns have become the more historically accurate Rouron. Gong Li’s Xianniang is pulled from another version of the Mulan story told in The Romance of Sui and Tang and then turned into a witch.
And here’s where some of Mulan’s problems start for me. In this story, Mulan’s skills are partly due to the strength of her chi, the vital life energy within her. We’re told early how strong her chi is and how it must be hidden away because she’s a girl and it’s unseemly.
We’re reminded Mulan is a girl frequently. The writer’s messages on gender politics and female empowerment are a little “look at me.” Mulan’s message has always been about female empowerment. It’s about a daughter taking her father’s place to save his life and bring honor to the family. It’s right there in the mix so I’ll admit to being a little thrown off by the repetition of the message.
It’s also clear that Caro wants to tug at your heartstrings and the film does in places; especially when Mulan and her father are talking during a certain moment at the end thanks to an unexpected arrival. But, overall, Mulan never captured my heart (and I have a fairly easy heart to capture).
Where Mulan does score a touchdown is in its messages about honor. About loyalty. About bravery. About truth. In today’s day and age, those tenets are so important and this Mulan takes the time to dig into those ideals and apply them to multiple characters throughout the film.
The fight scenes are all beautifully choreographed and I found myself wondering just how accurate some of the fighting and trapping techniques were. More and more I find myself dissatisfied when directors choose to edit their fight scene with shorter moments, especially when it’s clear the actor can fight. Yifei is so skilled that I literally yelled “Let Mulan fly!” at my television as I was watching. There’s so much talent there and great choreography that I wanted to see more of.
But that may be more of a personal pet peeve. What can I say, I like watching ladies kick ass.
This new live-action Mulan will no doubt thrill children once again. It will bring a level of Asian representation we’ve never seen from Disney and introduce both new and veteran actors to children all over the world. It is immersive and stunning to look at and I don’t doubt kids will love it.
For those of us who grew up with Ming-Na as Mulan and Eddie Murphy’s Mushu, there’s likely to be some wistful nostalgia when watching this new adaptation. We’ve always seen Mulan as inspiring and honorable. Brave, loyal, and true. But we’ve also held that Mulan close to our hearts for decades.
The question is, can this new live-action Mulan capture our hearts once again?
It didn’t capture mine forever, but it held onto it a few times.
Mulan hits Disney+ on Friday, September 4. If you don’t want to shell out an extra $30 to watch it, Disney says you’ll be able to watch it as part of your regular Disney+ subscription this December.