By Lynn Venhaus
A sweeping, sprawling epic adventure brimming with elegance and emotion, “Mulan” triumphs as one of Disney’s best makeovers.
The vibrant live action remake features gorgeous panoramic views, stunning symmetry, a bold palette and strong, colorful characters to advance the action.
The epic tale of China’s legendary warrior is brought to life in this live action re-imagining of the 1998 animated film. A fearless young woman, Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) risks everything out of love for her family and country when the Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from northern invaders. As the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, Mulan steps in to take the place of her ailing father, and masquerades as a man. When she harnesses her inner strength and reveals her true potential, she becomes an honored warrior and saves the dynasty.
A star is born in Yifei Liu, who commands the screen in much the same way as Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman in recent DC movies, You can’t take your eyes off of Liu, who depicts how brave and strong Mulan is. She also did 90 percent of the stunts, and showcases remarkable martial arts skills.
Much of the original has been scrapped to start over with a culturally appropriate story that involves more realism in characters – and a cast of Asian actors. Gone is Mushu, the dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, and others that aren’t necessary here.
This 2020 version is not a musical like the 1998 animated film was. However, the musical’s original song “Reflection” is used over the credits here, first sung by Christina Aguilera in English and then sung by lead Yifei Liu in Mandarin.
Suggested by the poem, “The Legend of Mulan,” this bracing spectacle is laser-focused on the talented warrior who happens to be a girl, born at a time when only men were in combat. Tomboy Mulan is expected to get married to bring honor to her family, but instead Hua Mulan takes the place of her ailing father in the Imperial Army who must fend off the Rourans’ attempts to take over. She must disguise herself but her martial arts abilities are too strong to hide, and eventually, she shows what a powerful and swift fighting machine she is. In other words, she has great ‘chi’ energy.
Nevertheless, she is conflicted about her lie, as honesty is part of the warrior’s code. She wrestles with the consequences of her actions, but truth wins out.
The screenplay is by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who are married and responsible for the three rebooted “Planet of the Apes” films as well as “Jurassic World,” along with Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin. They cut to the chase, conveying culture and conflict specific to the story.
The ensemble is strong, with good work by Tzi Ma as Mulan’s father Hua Zhou, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Yosan An as Mulan’s soldier friend Honghui, Jet Li as the emperor, Jason Scott Lee as Bori Khan and Gong Li as the witch Xianglang.
Director Niki Caro, who helmed “Whale Rider” in her native New Zealand, and in recent years “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and “McFarland, USA,” captures the grandeur and excels at the battle scenes, but maintains an intimacy that makes us care about Mulan’s plight.
The cinematography by Mandy Walker is stunning – and hopefully we can see this on the big screen someday.
While the intense action has merited the first PG-13 for a Disney live-action remake, older children can appreciate the devotion to family theme as well as not accepting limits to what you can do in life. Its focus on empowerment and inclusion is also timely and important.
“Mulan” is an action-adventure directed by Niki Caro and starring Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee, Tzi Ma, Donnie Yen, Yosan An, Jet Li, Gong Li. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, the run time is: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A-. Disney Plus is releasing it Sept. 4 for a fee of $29.99. In December, subscribers to the streaming channel will not be charged an additional fee.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.