Disney Updates ‘Mulan’ Into a Visually Grand Saga of War and Identity 

Disney tries something altogether different and entertainingly refreshing with their new take on “Mulan.” For the last few years the pop culture behemoth has been literally remaking its classic ‘90s animated catalogue into live action spectacles. The pattern has essentially been reviving the original in nearly shot-for-shot fashion but as live action. Last year’s “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were perfect examples. With a few narrative and updated tweaks, they were still the same songs and plot structure. “Mulan” does stay close to the premise of the 1998 animated movie, but reimagines it with the flourishes and energy of Asian action cinema. No songs or talking dragons in this one, instead it’s a robust period epic with visual grandeur to spare.

Originally slated for a March opening, “Mulan” was one of the year’s major releases continuously delayed by the ongoing pandemic. Now Disney will make the film available in the U.S. via Disney Plus for subscribers at an added price tag of $29.99. This gives fans and families a chance to enjoy the movie without risk. And it is worth a family movie night. As in the original, “Mulan” is set in a medieval China where the kingdom comes under threat from Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a warlord leading the Rouran in an invasion of the North. Khan has a particular vendetta against the Emperor (Jet Li) for having killed his father. Aiding Khan is Xianniang (Li Gong), a woman with supernatural powers cast out of her home. Meanwhile in a rural village Mulan (Yifei Liu), daughter of former soldier Zhou (Tzi Ma), just doesn’t fit into the local, patriarchal structure. Even the town matchmaker can’t stand her. Independent and strong willed, Mulan makes the choice to secretly join the imperial army when men are conscripted to fight Khan. Mulan joins the training camp passing herself for a man, meeting others brought in to wage battle, like Honghui (Yoson An). But as the moment of truth nears and the recruits will have to hit the battlefield, Mulan won’t be able to keep her identity secret forever.

“Mulan” continues the recent trend of Disney remakes directed by notable talents. Here director Niki Caro, who has made movies ranging from endearing adventures like “Whale Rider” to powerful dramas like “North Country,” fashions an epic that keeps the Disney spirit while standing out as well. It’s toned down enough for general family viewing but has the energy and visual splendor of great Asian classics like “House of Flying Daggers” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Cinematographer Mandy Walker shoots “Mulan” in gorgeous widescreen, putting the characters into vast terrains either in the Forbidden City amid glistening imperial splendor or the arid, rugged lands where Khan waits with his band of invaders. Some of the recent Disney remakes have boasted big budgets and stunning set design, but they tend to always feel live action copies of the originals. Whether “Beauty & the Beast” or “Lion King,” while they were enjoyable movies with some welcomed socially conscious updates, they also had the feeling of a good covers album. They were well done but the song was familiar, in those cases literally since they featured the same old musical numbers. “Mulan” feels new because it discards the songs (except for the end credits), does away with the old Asian stereotypes from the original, and re-tells the story with a fresh style. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams teases some of the melodies of the animated film’s score by the late Jerry Goldsmith, but adds his own, new muscular approach fit for a live action war movie.

Caro’s approach creates an almost hybrid entertainment. If the vistas and action scenes are grandiose and rugged, the story still has a lot of the recognizable and welcoming Disney humor. A meeting with the local matchmaker has some lite, goofy laughs involving a spider. Some viewers may wonder how Mulan could possibly make it through camp without being found out. Well, how often in real life do we just take people at their own word? Part of the fun in “Mulan,” both animated and now live action, is the idea that gender roles dissipate when they go unacknowledged. Mulan passes for a man, and because she’s so capable during training under Commander Tung (Donnie Yen of the “Ip Man” films), no one questions it. When she goes days without bathing to avoid having to remove her clothes, her buddies at camp, all played with hilarious grunt personalities, just take it as bad hygiene. In many ways this is a more feminist “Mulan,” even the expected romance with Honghui is downplayed. When he comes across Mulan during a late night river swim, the dialogue has a smart, friendly tone to it. He also asks Mulan for what could count as medieval dating advice, and her responses are not flowery or cheesy, but practical common sense.

When it is time to confront Khan “Mulan” goes from funny buddy movie into full, grand action mode. Some elements ask you to suspend belief, like a phoenix bird that has a habit of appearing whenever Mulan gets ready for some big moment. The concept of Chi is also used in the plot as a concept akin to The Force (“Star Wars” is a Disney property now anyway), where Mulan is in such balance with herself and nature that she can pull off some impressive feats involving horse riding and archery. It’s all in the spirit of this kind of movie and done with fantastic style. You just have to let the movie take you away, don’t expect any serious lessons on Chinese history, even if the movie is more culturally aware and respectful than what we would get in the ‘90s. There are no pandas in this film. The bad guys ride dressed in black, on black horses, with large swords and Khan likes to squint and make over the top pronouncements from hilltops. His riders do some nifty tricks when swinging around their horses in mid-ride to fire arrows. The best moments belong, of course, to Mulan when she scales buildings and rooftops, faces off with Xianniang, who has a habit of transforming into a hawk, and challenges the chauvinistic military commanders amid torchlight. 

“Mulan” is a strong family movie with some welcome diversity and also a message about identity and gender roles subtly and nicely fit into the narrative. But above all it’s a fantastic entertainment, full of color and energy. It also benefits from not being too trapped by nostalgia. This is, after all, based on a Chinese folk tale spanning quite a few centuries, so like all legends deserves new and original interpretations.  Wisely, Disney is giving audiences the chance to enjoy this one at home, where it certainly succeeds in taking you somewhere else.

Mulan” releases Sept. 4 on Disney+.