When Disney announced its live-action Mulan remake in 2015, some thought they’d set themselves an impossible task. To win over new audiences while keeping fans of the original happy is no mean feat, but to do it without any songs and no Mushu, Eddie Murphy’s fan favourite sidekick, would be even tougher. After COVID-19 put paid to its theatrical release, cinemagoers will finally get to watch the new movie on Disney+ this week. Can it deliver the goods?
In case you aren’t familiar, Mulan is the story of its eponymous heroine (Liu Yifei), a young woman living in rural China with her parents and younger sister. When we first meet Mulan, she is a focused young girl whose energy flow – or chi – catches the eye of her concerned parents. “Chi is for warriors, not daughters,” she is told by her father Hua Zhou (The Farewell’s Tzi Ma), before local villagers brand her “shameful” for displaying athleticism and a fiery, independent spirit. According to them, Mulan is destined to dishonour her family – and the only way to redemption lies through marriage. In this society, there is no place for a woman outside of the household.
The sad truth is that Mulan knows she can bring honour to them all, but is unable to do so in the way she feels natural: through combat. Eventually, she takes her handicapped father’s place in the Imperial Chinese Army to spare him the stress and danger of battle. Disguised as a man, she struggles with their unfamiliar world and the hardships of intense physical training while contending with her fellow recruits. By the time she is ready for war, a terrifying new threat has emerged in the form of vengeful Rouran warrior Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
In the original 1998 animation, Li Shang, Mulan’s commander and love interest, was tasked with getting China’s defending force in shape. But here, to much scepticism from fans, Shang has been omitted. Luckily, splitting the role into two characters in the remake facilitates Mulan’s character development. Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and friendly rival Chen (Yoson An) give her confidence and a level of respect she never receives from her family. Elsewhere, new character Xian Lang (Gong Li) plays an integral part in shaping Mulan’s actions. A witch with shapeshifting powers, she, like Mulan, is a woman that struggled to suppress her chi. However, she chooses to embrace it and subsequently becomes an outcast to society. Eventually, she is left with no other option than to ally with Bori Khan and use her powers for evil. While she presents herself as another female fighter, she shows Mulan what could happen if she goes down the wrong path. Although Xian provides the story with complexity, Bori Khan unfortunately comes across as under-developed and one-dimensional, which makes the film less gripping.
For the most part though, Mulan is dominated by Liu, whose strong performance balances emotion with physical prowess. Visually, director Niki Caro incorporates elements of martial arts films – or wuxia – to highlight her protagonist’s athletic ability. Elsewhere, the story focuses on her character and spiritual development without being overly referential to the Disney film.
Director Niki Caro’s modern update may take things in a different direction, but it makes Mulan a more empowering character. Thanks to her creative eye and Liu Yifei’s star turn, Mulan is the best live-action Disney adaptation to date.
- Director: Niki Caro
- Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong
- Release date: September 4