Crystal Rao, Liu Yifei, Mulan, Niki Caro, Rosalind Chao, Tzi Ma
Disney blinked and more’s the pity. Mulanis a rip-roaring, sweeping epic, action-packed, involving, and colorful. It deserves to be on the big screen. But hemorrhaging money as COVID imposes its misery on the happiest place on earth, the company is hoping to recoup some of its losses with a $30 surcharge to its Disney+ subscription. It’s a small screen, after all.
A quasi-remake of Disney’s 1998 animated tale, this live-action Mulan dispenses with songs, the dragon, and other elements of that first adaptation of the Chinese folk tale. In this version of the story, a young girl, Mulan (Crystal Rao), is already practicing her warrior moves, influenced by her father Zhou’s (Tzi Ma) stories of his experiences on the battlefield and in thrall to the sword that his prized possession.
She grows into a beautiful young woman (Liu Yifei), but even as her father warns her that a female warrior would bring disgrace to the family and her mother Li (Rosalind Chao) reminds her that a woman brings honor to her family when she makes a good marriage, Mulan never loses that independent streak. Her chance comes when the government seeks conscripts to defend the kingdom from the nomad would-be usurper Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his horde. Disguising herself as a male, Mulan goes off to war.
Mulan Is at its lightest in the film’s training camp scenes. A soldier’s life is something she has anticipated and trained for her all her life. Skill sets her male counterparts are just learning she already possesses. She is awkward out of necessity – not only does she not know the world or experiences of boys, but she does not dare do or say anything that might give her away. The deception tugs at her conscience even as her heart tells her that this is her destiny.
Director Niki Caro, who rose to prominence with Whale Rider (2002) before going on to make such films as North Country (2005) and The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), takes the reins of the most expensive movie ever made by a woman and every bit of that $200 million is apparent on screen. The battle scenes are tense and thrillingly choreographed. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is crisp and luminous. Grant Major’s production design, Anne Kuljian’s set decoration, and Bina Daigeler’s costume design blend into a kaleidoscope of often jewel-toned color, adding a sense of richness even to Mulan’s modest home village.
Mulan represents Disney’s latest step away from the princess-in-need-of-rescue narrative that was the company’s bread and butter for so many years. As portrayed by Rao and Liu, the girl who will be a warrior is a strong, resilient young person with the courage and fortitude to make her dreams a reality. A fierce conviction that the battlefield is where she belongs and that it is her duty and her destiny to protect her family and her country animate her. Mulan has lessons to teach the patriarchal society she was born into – and to a contemporary society watching her ancient battles on screen. –Pam Grady