Do you remember when Disney had that spate of releasing sequels to classic Disney films in a deluge of straight-to-VHS duds that never seemed to end? Well, apart from a couple of rare instances, that’s what Disney’s live action remakes have been feeling a little like.
So when we heard there would be a live action version of Mulan, we shrugged our shoulders, assuming it would fall into the pile of long-forgotten live action disappointments, languishing next to Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. But oh no, this Disney live action version is going on the tippy top shelf of Disney Blu-rays because it’s good. It’s really good.
In fact, this is the best live action version to date. It’s a shame we won’t get to see this on the big screen (it was originally set to be released back in March) because it’s absolutely gorgeous (no surprises there with Lord Of The Rings production designer and Oscar-winner Grant Naylor on board) but no size screen can hold back the heart of this film.
A big problem with many of Disney’s live action versions are the almost scene-for-scene parallel of their animated (and usually superior) counterparts. Here, the film diverts from the animation almost immediately, following Mulan as a child as she shows a remarkable mastery over her chi (the energy that runs through everyone), enabling her to control her body with exceptional balance and grace (she’s also a badass with a staff).
However, as she grows up she’s soon taught to hide her abilities when Chinese customs at the time force her to be quiet and subservient. We all know what happens next: her father gets called to re-join the military after evil Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) makes a play for control of the empire. Knowing that her father wouldn’t survive the rigour of war, she dresses as a man and joins the army in his place, proving to one and all that women can be just as powerful as men.
Instead of re-creating the 1998 movie, director Niki Caro has taken the beloved classic and used elements of it to add to the already legendary story of Mulan. We’ve been told time and time again that this version isn’t a musical, and it isn’t – instead, elements of the original’s songs we know and love are interwoven in the score, springing up every now and then to give us a good old punch in the feels. There is also no Mushu the dragon, but that doesn’t mean Mulan (Yifei Liu) doesn’t get a spiritual aide on her journey…
Speaking of the supernatural, this iteration of Mulan also introduces us to the character of Xianniang (Li Gong) – another woman who has remarkable control over her chi, enabling her to perform miraculous feats including transforming into birds. But Xianniang has gone on a very different path to Mulan. After being shunned and humiliated, she decides to use her powers to help Böri Khan overthrow the empire after he promises her she will be accepted in his new regime. The dynamic between Xianniang and Mulan is a beautifully powerful one – showing us the different roads people can take when they’re forced to be someone they’re not. It also shows a very real and dark possibility for Mulan’s future had she not been given the chance to prove herself.
But prove herself she does again and again, superseding her male counterparts in training and then again on the battlefield. These action sequences are nothing short of epic, and wouldn’t look out of place in a Kung-fu movie. From carefully choreographed one-on-one sparring matches with fellow warrior (and potential love interest) Honghui (Yoson An) to large scale horse-backed battles complete with flaming boulders, this Disney film doesn’t hold back on the brutality of war (though no blood of course).
It also doesn’t hold back on humour – Mulan visibly winces as she’s thrust into the half-naked horsing around of a male-only army camp and gives as good as she gets when the talk of women rolls around.
The film’s biggest asset, however, is its heart. It’s a major element that has been retained from the animated version, but with an aorta or two added, because this does what Disney does best. It whips you around all of your emotional arsenal and roundhouse kicks you in the chest quicker than you can say “I’m a dra-gon”.
Mulan isn’t afraid to use its exceptional cast to hold up a reflection of harsh reality and introduce characters who surprise at every turn. We see snippets of raw emotion when Mulan’s vulnerable and loving father (played by Tzi Ma) forces her to hold back who she really is. We see it in Mulan’s fellow comrades as they try to hold back their fear when approaching a cold, stark battlefield. We see it in the emotionally woke Honghui as he vows to put his life on the line for his country.
Though Mulan won’t be shown on the big screen, when a film gets down to business as beautifully, as exhilaratingly and as movingly as this, it doesn’t really matter where you see it. As long as you do.
Mulan will be exclusively available to Disney+ subscribers with Premier Access from 4 September.