Disney’s live-action (or, in the case of The Lion King, CGI) remakes of their classic animated films have been a mixed bag. At their best they’re creative and fun re-imaginings of childhood favourites, aimed at a more mature audience; at their worst, they can come across as uninspired, lazy cash-ins which are completely pointless. So where does Disney’s Mulan fit in, especially given the awkward nature of its release?
Thankfully, it’s far more the former than the latter. As Disney adaptations go, this one is a winner which should entertain both fans of the original and newcomers alike.
China is under attack, and the Emperor has decreed that one man from every family must join the Imperial Army to defend the nation.
But Hua Mulan, the spirited daughter of an honoured warrior, knows only too well that if her father joins the fight then he will be killed.
Already an outcast in her village and constantly risking bringing shame to her family, she steals her father’s sword and armour and joins the Emperor’s army in her father’s place. Now, posing as a young man, Mulan must accept her new duties while keeping her real identity secret to protect those she loves.
Can she find her place in the world and turn the tide of war, while living up to the warrior’s code of loyalty, bravery… and truth?
The story is simple but classic, with the young misfit heroine balancing potentially bringing dishonour to her whole family with doing the right thing. She’s easy to cheer for and, basically, if you’ve seen the original then you’ll know exactly what to expect: plenty of near-scrapes as she struggles to hide her true identity, some impressive fights as she helps to win a war, and some huge feel-good moments where characters learn and grow as people.
The big question for fans is obviously going to be “Is it better than the original?” Sorry, but no. It’s nowhere near as charming or instantly disarming, and there are some serious alterations to the story which are a genuine drawback in terms of the film’s core message. This film also bizarrely misses out on recreating some of the biggest emotional moments, leaving you wondering if a couple of scenes were lost in editing. Still, at least there’s no Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon on hand to screw things up, and plenty of the scenes (and the musical cues for them) are recognizable without being blatantly obvious.
So no, this version doesn’t live up to the high bar set by the animated film. That was to be expected, since none of the Disney adaptations have. And since this film also owes a great deal in style and content to films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there are lots of other high bars it falls short of too. Yet in this case, that’s no slur; this version may not hit those individual highs, but it’s a glorious hybrid of all of them – with something to please almost everyone. It’s a serious Disney-flavoured wuxia film, not to be dismissed lightly.
Liu Yifei plays it cool as Mulan, observing the goings-on around her quietly rather than drawing attention to herself. When the crunch comes her actions speak louder than words, although she manages to blend in while still being memorable. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances all around, and while the legendary Jet Li deservedly makes a fitting Emperor and the wonderful Gong Li will naturally draw plenty of attention, it’s Jun Yu as Cricket who can raise an instant smile.
Occasionally there are questionable choices in some of the shots and editing in Disney’s Mulan, but visually it’s a treat. The comedy is subtle, the action is impressive (even if the wire-work and fantasy style may not quite suit everyone), and the drama is solid.
As a film, Mulan flows more smoothly than you’d imagine, rarely feeling rushed and never being boring – despite its run time, which flies by surprisingly quickly. It’s an entertaining, enjoyable film that manages to deliver on the feel-good factor.
Once again, Mulan is the girl worth fighting for… just don’t get on her bad side.