Let’s get down to business: This isn’t one of Disney’s shot-for-shot, song-for-song live-action remakes. Rather, Niki Caro’s Mulan is a serious, often-intense reimagining of the ancient Chinese ballad that also inspired the studio’s 1998 animated hit. More Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than Disney Princess story, it’s a beautifully filmed epic that gives Hua Mulan increased agency and confidence. Gone are the songs (catchy as they were), most of the romantic subplot, and the motor-mouthed dragon sidekick. In their place is the tale of a girl with a powerful chi whose spirit defies tradition.
Mulan’s loving-but-traditional father (Tzi Ma) advises his daughter to hide her abilities in the interests of keeping the peace and presenting herself as a good matchmaking prospect. But Mulan (played by Crystal Rao as a child and Yifei Liu as a young woman) isn’t destined to be a meek, obedient wife. When the Imperial Army comes knocking, conscripting one able-bodied man from each family to fight invaders led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), Mulan sneaks out in the middle of the night with her long-ago-wounded father’s armor and sword, determined to take his place and bring her family honor.
These plot elements — and several others, from the big avalanche scene to Mulan’s foiled attempt at a solo dip in the lake — will be familiar to fans of the animated version. But Caro tweaks certain aspects of Mulan’s story and introduces new ones, too, in the interests of giving her heroine an even more firmly feminist trajectory. For example, here her potential love interest is a peer, rather than her commanding officer, which removes the iffy power dynamic of the earlier film. And a new character, shape-shifting witch Xianniang (Gong Li), is a strong, tragic woman whose experiences help Mulan understand why it’s so important for her to embrace who she really is. That moment of revelation may be the most important difference of all between the two films: Here, she decides when and how to tell the world her secret, rather than having it discovered as the result of a battlefield injury. She owns her story.
There are other meaningful updates here, too, not the least of which is that — in a time when authentic representations in the media are more important than ever — the cast is made up entirely of actors who are ethnically Chinese. Some have raised an eyebrow at the fact that Caro is not, but her track record in bringing strong women and girls to the screen, combined with the care she put into hiring her cast and crew, is clear, and the end result is a satisfying epic. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Niki Caro has spent her career telling women’s stories, so it’s not a surprise that she does justice to the ancient Ballad of Mulan in Disney’s live-action retelling of the epic woman warrior tale. With an international cast of acclaimed Chinese actors, the new Mulan focuses on the protagonist’s personal growth, her acceptance of her power (her chi, which is usually thought of as a male trait), and her devotion and loyalty to family, friends, and homeland. Liu Yifei is terrific as the innocent, hopeful, but incredibly fierce Mulan, who feels compelled to save her son-less disabled father (the excellent Tzi Ma) by pretending to be a young man ready to enlist in the Imperial Army. While there aren’t a lot of laughs (and naturally, no cartoonish dragon sidekick), fans of the original will recognize several callbacks to the animated adventure. Li Gong deserves a shout-out as the Huns’ secret weapon, a powerful sorceress fighter who finds more recognition than animosity in Mulan’s abilities. This is a grown up, dramatic version of Mulan that elevates the empowering, feminist, and family-oriented overtones of the original.
Pam Grady: A young woman in ancient China risks her life as well as her family’s honor when she takes to the battlefield in Disney’s opulent, action-packed epic. Mulan’s (Liu Yifei) future was written when she was born a girl. A good marriage is supposed to be her fate, but she takes after her warrior father Zhou (Tzi Ma) and when her country faces a new threat, she rewrites her destiny. Whale Rider‘s Niki Caro directs this $200-million production – the most expensive film to date helmed by a woman – and every dollar is reflected on screen. Thrilling fight choreography, an involving story, and lavish production values add up to rip-roaring adventure with a strong, resilient woman at its center. Light years from the traditional Disney princess, Mulan is a hero who may hail from olden times, but speaks to our own.
Susan Wloszczyna: In the hands of Niki Caro, this live action version is a visually-stunning, well-written, high-action war epic that is must-see family entertainment. With a budget of $200 million, – the most for any film helmed by a female – the high-flying stunts, the gorgeous scenery (courtesy of China and New Zealand), the highly choreographed battle scenes, the excellent special effects – all fairly scream that this is one impressive production. Read full review.
Kathia Woods Disney’s live-action films haven’t exactly been a winning formula. After Lion King, I wasn’t holding on to much hope that Mulan would be better; however, I was wrong. This is the best live-action film that Disney has made. The music and Mushu are gone but what we gain is a warrior. Liu Yifei is outstanding as Mulan. She brings a more serious persona to the screen. Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, and Tzi Ma are also excellent. The cinematography by Mandy Walker is stunning, and the costuming by Bina Daigeler equally strong. All the above make this film a winner. This version of Mulan gives young girls the most important lesson that they are good enough and strong enough. Embracing oneself is the ultimate victory. That is a message that will last much longer than a song.
Leslie Combemale New Zealand director Niki Caro has been making gorgeous, meaningful films with messages of female empowerment for her entire career, and has the accolades and awards to prove it. Now she has brought Mulan to the screen, and it’s as powerful and moving as it is a wonder to the eye. ‘Girls Kicking Ass While Dressed Appropriately To Do So’ is my go-to action sub-genres, and Mulan, starring the dynamic and compelling Yifei Liu in the title role, will be added as essential viewing to a film category that, at long last, has started to expand. It is a disappointment that the pandemic means Caro won’t have the worldwide blockbuster she could have had. Folks looking for fun and girl power at the movies, however, can spend $30 for their whole family to see it in their home theaters, and do so in their jammies.
Loren King Director Niki Caro’s live-action remake of Disney’s beloved 1998 animated Mulan is by far the most ambitious and rewarding of the studio’s recent remakes, including last year’s Aladdin and The Lion King. It remains faithful to the story, with its ancient origins, while giving it a modernity and a relevance that injects it with new life. It’s an old-fashioned battle epic with a solid female empowerment core. Read full review.
MaryAnn Johanson I’m not a fan of Disney’s plan to do live-action remakes of its animated films, but if they will insist on it, here’s the way to do it: Give a young woman’s story to a female director. Niko Caro’s take on the legendary Chinese figure is refreshingly free of the sort of fetishization we often get when male directors take on female action heroes, and also eschews the exoticization of Asian women that often afflicts Western filmmaking. Yifei Liu as Mulan exudes pride, honor, and a strength both physical and psychological. She’s a wonderful role model for girls who aren’t much interested in conformity and adhering to expectations.
Jennifer Merin In Disney’s live action version of Mulan, director Niki Caro pares away the animated version’s cartoonish elements and cuts to the core of the ancient Chinese tale of a rebellious and courageous young women who defied traditional gender roles to become a heroic and honored warrior. The character of Mulan, as played by Yifei Liu, shines as an example of a woman who uses her strength and skills to claim equality in a social system ruled by men. She is an empowering role model for women to fulfill their personal ambitions and potential for leadership. The beautifully crafted film’s compelling story and exquisite production values are sure to make it a classic. Brava, Caro.
Marina Antunes Stories of women overcoming great obstacles, embracing their power and finding their true path in the world, often at great threat to themselves and their families, are nothing new. The true tale of Mulan, the Chinese heroine who stood up the empire and ultimately saved them, has already seen life once before as a cartoon but Niki Caro’s Mulan, while familiar in plot, is a beautifully realized, action-packed visual spectacle that brings the ancient tale of personal struggle against great odds to life once again.
Nell Minow: The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential chi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her chi.
Cate Marquis As Disney has been busily remaking its animated films into live action ones, some have worked out better than others, but the live-action Mulan is a winner. In this new version, there are no songs, no dragon or cricket, but the film has a shape-shifting woman warrior/witch, more depth to the characters, sweeping action and wonderful vistas, and a distinctive feminist twist to the story. The updating makes for a highly enjoyable film.
Director: Niki Caro
Release Date: September 4, 2020
Running Time: 115 minutes
Screenwriters: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek
Distribution Company: Disney
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods
Edited by Jennifer Merin