Covid-19 destroyed Disney’s plans for Mulan’s wide theatrical release. The studio repeatedly moved the release date before ultimately deciding the best option was to release it to American audiences via their subscription streaming service, Disney+, at a premium price. And while it’s not the optimal way to take in a screening of this epic tale, it’s definitely the safest.
The film begins by introducing us to a young, fearless Mulan (Crystal Rao). While guiding such a rambunctious risk-taker, Mulan’s mother tries to rein her in but her father, Zhou (Tza Ma), is more supportive. Despite any efforts to force Mulan to yield to social norms, it’s obvious from early on Mulan was born to be a warrior. She was also born a female which meant embracing that destiny was strictly forbidden.
As a young woman, Mulan (Yifei Liu) stumbles through social niceties, tries to stifle her true self, and attempts to fit into the narrow box of what’s allowable for a young woman of that era. She’s like a bull in a China shop when it comes to fulfilling the demands of a well-bred young woman who’s only goal, according to tradition, should be to make a good match in an arranged marriage.
Believing he’s acting in her best interests – and the best interests of the family – Mulan’s father warns her to hide her gifts. However, Mulan seizes the opportunity to unleash her chi when the Emperor of China demands one male from each family join the Imperial Army to defend their country from the rampaging Rourans. The Rouran horde has slaughtered garrison after garrison, and the Imperial Army needs replacements immediately if there’s any hope of saving the country.
Disguised as a man and assuming the name Hua Jun, Mulan enters training and quickly proves to be a skilled fighter. She overcomes challenges, including how to bathe without being exposed as a woman, and finds herself absorbed into a small, friendly group of fellow soldiers. Among them is a young man, Honghui (Yoson An), who becomes her closest confidante and fervent supporter. But even in this blossoming friendship, Mulan is unable to reveal the truth. The Imperial Army demands its members be loyal, brave, and true. She can’t risk expulsion and the disgrace it would bring to her family if Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) were to learn her secret.
Fairly quickly into their training Mulan’s garrison is called upon to join the battle. The Rourans are aided by a witch, but the Imperial Army has a secret weapon of their own in the form of a fierce warrior who comes to learn the importance of embracing who she is and what she’s capable of accomplishing.
Mulan, the live-action version, doesn’t have any musical numbers. It also doesn’t have gory battle scenes. While the film is packed with thrilling, violent fights, they’re all completely bloodless. It’s understandable since Disney’s targeting a family audience, but it does slightly take the edge off the battle sequences.
Yifei Liu does an impressive job of portraying Mulan’s struggle to be herself in a society that demands she suppress her desires and hide her abilities. Liu completely committed to bringing this iconic warrior to life on the screen, performing almost all her own stunts. (It’s reported she handled 90% of the work.) Her dedication paid off as Mulan’s fights are fluid and breathtaking.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) assembled an outstanding cast to support Yifei Liu. Gong Li is riveting as Xianniang, a shapeshifting witch with ties to the Rouran leader, Böri Khan. Li’s performance has genuine emotional depth and, other than Mulan’s arc, it’s Xianniang who undergoes the most fulfilling transformation over the course of the film.
Jason Scott Lee’s Böri Khan is battle-hardened and driven by revenge. Khan is ruthless and brutal, and Lee makes him the perfect adversary for the young, inexperienced but determined Mulan.
Other notable standouts among the talented ensemble include Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, the respected leader of Mulan’s garrison and her mentor while she’s in disguise as Hua Jun, and Yoson An as Honghui, Mulan’s fellow soldier and love interest. Yoson An and Yifei Liu have real chemistry on screen as their relationship gently builds from a sort of antagonism to deep respect and ultimately love.
Disney’s live-action Mulan is vibrant, thrilling, and beautiful. The production design, costumes, and cinematography are spectacular, combining to make Mulan one of the most visually arresting action films of the past 20 years.
Director Niki Caro pays homage to the animated film in non-intrusive ways while making this live-action movie completely its own entity. Mulan is the story of a woman who frees herself from her restraints and emerges as a fulfilled, empowered woman. And 2020’s the perfect time for the tale of a hero who overcomes arbitrary, unfair restrictions and embraces her inner warrior. It’s just a shame Covid-19 is keeping audiences from watching the film in all its epic glory on the big screen.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: September 4, 2020
Directed By: Niki Caro
Written By: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek
Suggested By: The narrative poem, “The Ballad of Mulan”