MULAN movie poster | ©2020 Walt Disney Pictures

MULAN movie poster | ©2020 Walt Disney Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao
Writers: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin; animated screenplay by Rita Hsaio, Christopher Sanders, Philip Lazebnik, Raymond Singer & Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, story by Robert D. San Souci, based on the legend of Mulan
Director: Niki Caro
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Release Date (on Disney+): September 4, 2020

MULAN tells the story of a young woman in ancient China who disguises herself as a young man. It was previously adapted for the screen as an animated musical feature from Disney in 1998.

This MULAN is live-action, and hits a lot of the same beats, though it adds a novel element. This time, Mulan (Yifei Liu) encounters another powerful woman, the sorceress Xianniang (Li Gong). Although Xianniang’s magic propels part of the plot, Mulan has more of an effect on her than the other way around.

Based on a real Chinese legend, this MULAN is narrated by the character’s father, Zhou (Tzi Ma). Zhou loves his wife (Rosalind Chao) and both his daughters. He can’t bear to curb Mulan’s independent spirit or athletic skills. This makes her hard to marry off, but when the kingdom of China is threatened by the hordes of Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), these assets come in handy.

The Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that each family in China must send forth a male to join the army. Zhou, an honored warrior in his day, now walks with a cane. Although he determines to answer the call, Mulan sneaks out at night, dresses in her father’s armor, and presents herself at the camp of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) as Hua Jin, Zhou’s son.

Directed Niki Caro, working from a screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin, strikes exactly the right balance between emotion and action. There’s a lot of Hong Kong-style martial arts here, with longtime practitioners Yen, Li, and Lee all getting the chance to demonstrate their mastery.

MULAN was shot in New Zealand and China, and the film basks in scenic splendor, natural, architectural and CGI. The filmmakers continually find ways to incorporate the environment into the fights, so that there’s a relatively organic feel, even when characters are running straight up walls.

Liu has conviction and physical grace. She is also more or less plausible as someone who could pass as a very young man, especially in circumstances where nobody else can conceive that she might be a woman. Ma has dignity and charm as Mulan’s loving father, and Li Gong gives a persuasive performance as the conflicted magic wielder. There’s a nice uncredited cameo from a performer who did significant voice work on the animated film.

We don’t miss the musical numbers or the wisecracking talking dragon from the 1998 edition. There is one slapstick scene early on, and there is gentle humor throughout, but this MULAN is a lot more serious about its dramatic underpinnings. Fortunately, while we can’t help but get the messages about the importance of family, courage, and being true to oneself, they feel sincere. Moreover, they are doled out in just the right proportion to the gorgeous, high-energy set pieces.

MULAN is great to look at, has a strong pace and a fine cast. Most of all, it’s actually fun.

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