I was 21 when the original, animated Mulan movie was released; far too cool for those Disney cartoons. They’re for kids, right? It’d take until the release of Tarzan in the following year for me to actively take an interest in Disney animation again (the intoxicating blend of the Deep Canvas animation technique and the adaptation of one of my favourite childhood franchises was to blame for renewing my interest in the House of Mouse). It was years before I saw the 1998 version of Mulan – I enjoyed it, but wouldn’t say that I’m a die-hard fan or anything.
So I didn’t rush to see the live action adaptation, though I must admit that I thought its blend of lavishly staged action, mysticism and social commentary did look appealing. And it is!
When Rouran warriors, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), begin mercilessly taking down outposts in Imperial China – assisted by the powerful, shape-changing witch Xianniang (Li Gong) – the Emperor (bizarrely played by Jet Li in old age make-up with some odd dubbing) issues a decree, stating that every family must contribute one man of fighting age to defend the warriors. Hua Zhou (an excellent Tzi Ma), who lives in a village with his wife and two daughters, tries to enlist – but his old war injury means that he would be unlikely to survive the battles ahead. However, his adventurous young daughter – Hua Mulan (Yiefi Liu) – sneaks out of the village under cover of darkness, posing as a young male. Can she maintain the charade long enough to help defend China and the Emperor himself?
It’s a beautifully shot film, which is evident right from the start. Much is made of the expansive landscape, with beautiful vistas showing off some very appealing scenery. Though the magical elements are toned down from the cartoon – in particular, the talking dragon and cutely comical cricket are, thankfully, absent – there’s plenty of mysticism and more overt elements such as the aforementioned shape-changing. It feels a little pasted on, in honesty, and does reduce the impact of the worthy commentary on sexism. The large scale battle and fight scenes are pretty spectacularly staged throughout too, with Niki Caro – not usually known for films that include sustained action – directing some truly dizzying, impressively choreographed sequences. A late stage change of heart by one character doesn’t ring true, however; but this is a minor issue in a film that’s as fleet of foot as its heroine in terms of its pacing and style.
It’s a relatively straightforward retelling of the cartoon then, but – bolstered by strong performances, some touching, heartfelt scenes and beautiful cinematography – it’s one that I thoroughly enjoyed. More than once I was reminded of Caro’s earlier film, the wonderful Whale Rider, in which a young Maori girl tries hard to fight against her grandfather’s traditional view of the world – which is undoubtedly one of the reasons that Caro proved such a great fit to adapt Mulan. It’s a shame that there was no opportunity to see the epic landscapes and sumptuously staged historical scenes on the big screen, but – in a year as challenging as 2020 – it’s a relief that it has already been released at all.
Mulan is now available ‘free’ to subscribers of Disney Plus, following a somewhat controversial period in which subscribers were asked to pay extra to see it, which was quite the miscalculation by Disney. It left a bit of a sour taste – it’s one thing to offer films at a premium price and bypass cinemas in the first place, but another to do the same by essentially making people pay twice for the privilege – but hopefully it’s proven to be a lesson learned for the House of Mouse.
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