Disney’s beloved Princess tales are no stranger to classic mythology, and everything from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “The Princess and the Frog” have pulled liberally from existing material to craft family-friendly animated outings centered on inspirational women. Such was the case with the Mouse House’s 1998 animated hit “Mulan,” which used a centuries-old piece of Chinese folklore to craft the story of the first Asian Disney Princess, complete with requisite musical numbers and even a cute (if later maligned) talking animal pal. “The Ballad of Mulan” has inspired countless adaptations over the years, and while Niki Caro’s live-action update, starring the engaging Yifei Liu, still retains some trappings of its Disney-fication, it’s also a remarkable action epic that carves its own path.
Caro’s film tips to its predecessors early on, as Mulan’s beloved father Hua Zhou (beautifully portrayed by Tzi Ma) announces in voiceover that “there have been many tales of the great warrior Mulan,” and this one is simply joining their ranks. Fans of the original animated hit will be able to pick out a slew of differences early on, thanks to a significantly expanded first act that offers a deeper look at Mulan (Crystal Rao, playing a plucky young version of the title character before ceding to Liu) and her early years. This vision of Mulan, scripted by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hyneck, and Elizabeth Martin, hinges on the strength of her innate “qi,” a strength of spirit only meant for warriors. More specifically, for male warriors.
Even as a youngster, both Mulan and her family know that her obvious skills with feather-light footwork and the kind of hand-eye coordination you just can’t teach aren’t befitting a woman. “A daughter brings honor through marriage,” her by-the-book mother Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) reminds her, while Mulan’s supportive father is forced to make upsetting pronouncements like, “qi is for warriors, not daughter.” Driven by her desire to serve her family — even if that means burying her true nature — Mulan attempts to meet the expectations foisted upon her.
Of course, that doesn’t always work, and while constantly worried about the possibility that her reckless qi will dishonor the family and turn Mulan into a witch — spoiler alert: she’s not the only woman in the film to be forced into such boxes — Mulan can really only be herself. And that means being a warrior. As a brutal battle threatens the entire kingdom, Mulan is pushed to make a wrenching choice: abandon her family, take her ailing father’s place in the army, and somehow figure out how to remain “loyal, brave, and true” while lying to just about everyone around her.
While Caro isn’t always able to balance the competing storylines that eventually take hold — Mulan’s journey is the heart and spine of the film, but it also spends time diving into the baddies (including Jason Scott Lee as their leader) and the mysterious woman who is assisting them in their campaign to take down The Emperor (Jet Li) — “Mulan” does find intriguing ways to connect them. Mostly, that’s through the growing bond between the teenage Mulan and Xian Lang (Gong Li), a powerful witch who both frightens and inspires the young warrior, though other sequences that focus on Lee’s villain are far too convoluted for their own good.
More successful is Caro’s ability to combine different tones, from the humorous whimsy of an ill-fated visit to a matchmaker to the grittier training montages that turn Mulan into a true warrior. Her motley crew of pals — who, of course, all believe their friend is a slightly strange boy, not a deeply skilled young woman — offer both humor and heart, gracefully building in yet another cadre of people Mulan is hellbent on fighting for.
And fight they do. “Mulan” is a film bolstered by a series of jaw-dropping, wuxia-inflected fighting sequences that are genuinely thrilling. From the urgency and terror of a mountain-set battle to the hand-to-hand combat that takes hold in the final act (complete with a go-round on precarious scaffolding that screams “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), “Mulan” is a true action epic. The film is about many things, but Caro and her choreographers never take for granted that it’s principally about a warrior, and a warrior needs to fight. Tasked with playing a multi-faceted character, rising star Liu delivers, easily inhabiting both the reticent, shy Mulan and her bombastic evolution into unmitigated badass.
While Caro’s vision of Mulan has done away with many of the traditional trappings of the beloved 1998 animated tale — no, no one ever breaks out into song, and while some purists might rankle at that exclusion, the film really does work without it — the film can’t quite kick all of its Disney-fied inclinations. Mulan and her family’s country home feels a little too glossy for the rest of the world it’s thrust into, though Mandy Walker’s crisp cinematography still makes it feel vital. As the film expands outward, it feels more rich and real, and by the time Mulan and her friends alight on their first big battle, Caro has crafted a tangible world for them to inhabit.
In addition to building in new characters like Xian Lang, this updated “Mulan” also gracefully splits our leading lady’s animated love interest, Li Shang, into a pair of different men — the choice was allegedly made to circumvent any weirdness about Mulan falling for her supervising officer, in the spirit of the #MeToo era, and while it seems destined to be derided by some as “woke nonsense,” it deepens the story in multiple ways. Not only does the creation of a new supervisor (Commander Tung, played by Donnie Yen) and a fellow soldier (Chen Honghui, played by Yoson An) to potentially romance her add further dimension to the world, it also does the same for Mulan, allowing Liu to show off different sides of herself with new foils.
Disney’s push into live-action remakes has resulted in something of a mixed bag, from the joys of “The Jungle Book” and “Pete’s Dragon” to the unexpectedly divisive reception of “The Lion King” and even the soulless cash grab that is the “Alice” franchise, but “Mulan” is perhaps the best example of how to marry the original with something fresh. The Ballad of Mulan has always been an epic-scale story about the power of being yourself in a world not ready to accept that, a tale that will likely always have resonance. In Niki Caro’s “Mulan,” that story elegantly and energetically moves forward, a timeless message made for right now.
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