“Mulan” is the first of the Disney “live-action” remakes not to feel like some sort of perverse corporate money-grab. Unlike “The Jungle Book” (2016), “Aladdin” (2019), or “The Lion King” (2019), the remake of the 1998 animated “Mulan” hasn’t been photocopied and touched up using pixels and/or live actors and then sold to audiences as something “new.” It’s been wholly reimagined, narratively and visually, by director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) and an inventive team of writers and craftspeople.
What was a sprightly inspirational tale of a girl warrior in imperial China, heavy on the animated mayhem, comic frills, and musical interludes, is now a wide-screen action epic with no songs, a high-wattage Chinese cast, and a veneer of wuxia martial arts choreography. No funny dragons voiced by Eddie Murphy, either. The new “Mulan” is more frankly a hybrid of Eastern and Western filmmaking styles, and if it lacks the poetic majesty of the best entries in the genre — Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” King Hu’s classics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tsui Hark’s 1990s work — it’s solid enough to please family audiences and more than a few jaded adults.
The story line, based on the ancient Chinese poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” is essentially unchanged from the earlier film. Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) is an adolescent girl whose rambunctious ways mark her as a scandal to her family and fellow villagers and who, disguised as a man, becomes a hero leading the army of the emperor (action legend Jet Li) against invading barbarians. Leaving her adoring father (Tzi Ma) and chiding mother (Rosalind Chao) — which is Disney tradition, after all — she joins a squadron of newbie soldiers overseen by the stern Commander Tung (Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen) as they ready themselves to fight the hordes led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
No one sings, which is only a bummer because “Let’s get down to business/ to defeat the Huns” is practically stamped on a generation’s DNA. While the commanding officer was also the love interest in the 1998 film, that won’t wash in the #MeToo era, and the addition of a sigh-guy fellow soldier (Yoson An) is an acceptable substitute. The most notable change is a new female character, a shape-shifting sorceress who’s loosely in the employ of the barbarian leader and who’s played by the ageless Gong Li as a dark-side example of what happens when the patriarchy tries to rein in female power. Which sounds a lot more doctrinaire than it comes off in the playing.
The switch to live-action (heavily augmented by CGI work) occasions not only an emphasis on scrupulously photographed wide-screen exteriors (in China and New Zealand; Mandy Walker was the cinematographer) but a lavish production design that melds elements of classical Chinese iconography with the grandeur of a modern franchise blockbuster. (The one chintzy touch is a digitized Phoenix — the heroine’s spirit animal — that flits through a few scenes like a parade streamer.) The movie cost $200 million to make and it’s all up there on the screen, which makes Disney’s decision to bypass theaters in the COVID-19 era and go straight to Disney+ seem perverse if wholly understandable. The streaming version will cost subscribers $29.99 for unlimited views for three months, until Dec. 4 -- a high-end toe dipped in the as-yet-unsettled waters of premium-VOD price points -- after which it will become free to Disney+ members.
The stars of the film are the camerawork, the battle scenes — vertiginous exercises in whirling stuntmen and twirling angles — and leading actress Liu, who matures from rawboned girl to seasoned leader as we watch. There are moments of startling beauty in this “Mulan,” including the sorceress taking form as a murmuration of birds, the muscularity of the battle scenes, and the lithe athleticism of the final confrontation between Mulan and the barbarian king. There are also moments where you feel the digitized hothouse in which the movie has been cooked up — long shots that could double as screen savers. In the end, “Mulan” 2020 stands as an inspired oddity: A reenvisioned remake that improves on the original even as it owes everything to movies that have come before.
Directed by Niki Caro. Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek. Starring Yifei Liu, Gong Li, Jason Scott Lee, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Yoson An. Streaming on Disney+. 116 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of violence).