Of the dozen young women whom the Walt Disney Co. classifies as “princesses” — successors of sultans, chiefs and kings; kissers of frogs, beasts and princes Charming — one never quite fit the royal canon, or most conservative ideas of femininity for that matter: sixth-century Chinese folk hero Hua Mulan, who hailed from a humble family and won her family’s honor by enlisting to defend the emperor in her father’s place.
Sure, questions have been raised around a few of the others, but as Maui told Moana, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, then you’re a princess.” Even by that definition, however, Mulan breaks the mold. Unlike the ladylike beauties who picked up their skirts and threw down their hair, Mulan proved herself on the battlefield disguised as a man. That’s not to say she doesn’t belong among Disney’s most beloved heroines. If anything, Mulan’s outlier status — her sheer exceptionalism in a society that expects that of cultural minorities — is what makes this character so compelling, and why the studio’s live-action version of her story stands out.
Directed by Niki Caro, whose enchanting 2002 film “Whale Rider” felt like a family-friendly, live-action Disney fantasy, “Mulan” is no mere remake. It’s simultaneously an homage to and an overhaul of the 1998 animated feature, a robust reimagining of that film’s original source, Yuefu folk song “The Ballad of Mulan,” and the somewhat dated cartoon it spawned. Unlike “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast,” which slavishly adhered to their underlying IP, “Mulan” feels as if it were made by someone who didn’t necessarily love Disney’s earlier treatment. That may disappoint fans who grew up on that version but should pose no obstacle to a new generation sure to be inspired by this epic-scale tribute to female empowerment.
“There have been many tales of the great warrior Mulan, but ancestors, this one is mine,” says Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma of “The Farewell”) as the film opens, and the statement is clear: This latest cover doesn’t consider itself obliged to rehash every aspect of what came before. Gone are “animal sidekick” Cricket, whose name has been arbitrarily reassigned to one of Mulan’s fellow soldiers; Eddie Murphy’s jabbering dragon Mushu, replaced by a CG phoenix glimpsed only from afar; and nearly all the musical numbers (subsumed into Harry Gregson-Williams’ derivative score — though the film gains a terrific new Christina Aguilera song, “Loyal Brave True,” over the end credits).
Caro chooses to privilege spectacle over fidelity, cramming so much into the film that it seems rushed, rarely allowing audiences to appreciate the incredible production value invested in all its locations, sets and costumes. Then again, her whirlwind approach invites repeat viewing, serving up clean, elegant imagery destined to have a far longer shelf life than such disposable Disney offerings as “Dumbo” and “Alice and in Wonderland.”
“Mulan” introduces its title character (Yifei Liu) as an unruly young girl, ill-suited to marriage but already adept at martial arts. Faced with the threat of invasion, the emperor (Jet Li) demands a male conscript from every family to help defend against battle-scarred Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who suggests a cross between Attila the Hun and a Hells Angels squad leader. Already wounded in an earlier war, her father has two daughters and no choice but to offer himself in service, at which point Mulan intervenes, stealing his sword and armor and setting off on one of those “Lord of the Rings”-style cross-country journeys. (Caro’s New Zealand roots come in handy there, augmenting the movie’s geographically diverse Chinese locations on her home turf.)
No studio faces more scrutiny than Disney when it comes to casting, a sensitivity to which results in one of the film’s greatest strengths: the choice of Chinese actor Liu (“Once Upon a Time”) for the lead. While not especially convincing in disguise — muddy cheeks do not a man make — Liu commands our attention, just as her character will the imperial army. Such a role would seem to call for someone charismatic, but Liu plays it stolid instead, which helps to overcome Mulan’s inherent contradictions: honoring her father by disobeying him, making herself conspicuous while trying to pass undetected.
Almost certainly responding to another recurring critique of classic Disney cartoons, the screenwriting teams of Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have jettisoned the animated version’s strapping love interest, Li Shang. If Mulan’s not a princess but a self-reliant warrior, why should she need a prince-like man to validate her? Here, her fellow soldiers — including fair-featured rival Honghui (Yoson An), who suspects something — are less masculine than typical war-movie extras, allowing Mulan to blend in more easily. For some reason, she doesn’t bother to cut her hair, making it a bit too easy to let it down when the time comes.
With multiple authors but no clear voice, the clumsy “Mulan” script often puts plot above character, depriving Mulan of a robust personality. Defined by her determination, she mostly keeps to herself, which deprives her of meaningful human relationships during the mid-section of the film. Underwritten as she is, Mulan is handily upstaged by Xianniang (Gong Li), a powerful sorceress invented for the film who gives Mulan a strong female adversary. She’s more than that, actually: A shape-shifting hawk, Xianniang embodies the vengeful bitterness of a woman misunderstood and ultimately exiled by a sexist society. “I was a girl like you when people turned on me,” she says, tempting Mulan to the movie’s equivalent of the Dark Side.
“Mulan” features more than its share of “Star Wars” references, none more obvious than the idea that her strength derives from her chi, if only she could learn to control it. Stylistically, the movie owes more to Asian cinema, from Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” to Zhang Yimou’s “Hero.” Every single shot of Caro’s “Mulan” is designed to impress, so much so that the film can be overwhelming to absorb — particularly on home screens, where Disney will release this widescreen marvel, after the coronavirus outbreak spoiled its already-delayed March 27 opening. (The film will still play cinemas in some countries, including China, though Americans can only access it through the Disney Plus subscription service, at a hefty $29.99 premium.)
Storyboarded to within an inch of its life, then translated to screen with stunning energy and attention to detail, the film represents Hollywood’s most enthusiastic embrace of blockbuster Asian cinema tropes since “The Matrix” trilogy. Whereas the earlier “Mulan” was no doubt guilty of cultural appropriation — a kitschy case of late-20th-century chinoiserie in service of Disney’s distinctly Western sensibility — Caro’s version wants to convince us that we’re watching the real thing, as John Woo or Chen Kaige might have made it.
On one hand, the result isn’t immediately recognizable as “a Disney movie,” but neither does it establish its own narrative or visual signature, the way Tarantino did when remixing Asian influences for “Kill Bill.” This is pure pastiche, as Caro and her crew shamelessly pilfer from kung fu, Fifth Generation and Hong Kong action movies, incorporating anime and Bollywood touches as well. During their first attack, Böri Khan and his Rouran invaders run directly up a wall, after which the camera rotates on its side to capture a slow-motion clash with imperial guards.
In the well-choreographed action scenes to follow, a horseback Mulan dodges arrows by leaning back in her saddle, later flipping and kicking like Ziyi Zhang in “House of Flying Daggers.” The emperor fights with unfurled fabric, a technique also stolen from that movie. One could complain that hardly a single frame feels original, but there’s no denying how striking it all looks. It’s been nearly two decades since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” brought China’s wuxia cinema into the American mainstream, but this is the first time since that it’s driven such a high-profile American studio production.
If the results feel like a form of Asian drag — American ideas of Sino society wrapped in ersatz period costumes — at least that’s consistent with the film’s central themes. More than ever, Mulan’s story shows that gender is no obstacle to heroism. Whereas the cartoon undercut that message with cheap cross-dressing jokes, the remake reflects shifting attitudes toward trans rights as well. A few years from now, Disney will have burned through its entire back catalog of animated classics. Caro’s iconic do-over looks great, but given how fast the cultural conversation is changing, “Mulan” could be the title most ripe for a re-remake. The character is unique among “princesses,” after all — or, as a line sorely lacking from this version goes, “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.”