Disney may have copped some backlash when Mulan was first announced but its latest live action adaptation will surprise the doubters and disbelievers. The film was initially condemned for the decision to take a more dramatic approach to the mythology of one of Chinese folktales’ favourite heroines. There would be no musical numbers, no Captain Li Shang and most shocking of all, no Mushu. But what results is Disney’s venture into a more serious examination of a character who should be viewed as more than “just a princess”.
Controversies and setbacks aside, the release of Mulan on the Disney+ streaming service seems only fitting. Even though the film was unable to get a proper theatrical release globally, it still manages to reach audiences, albeit at a premium price tag. For families the price ($34.99 AUD on top of your existing Disney+ subscription fee) actually works out cheaper than a trip to the movies, but it’s a little distasteful for individuals. However the film and it’s $200 million production budget well lives up to its premium price tag.
Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) lives an idyllic life with her father Hua Zho (Tzi Ma), mother Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) and her younger sister Hua Xiu (Xana Tang) in their small village. Unlike her more traditional and conservative family and the rest of her village, she is spirited, willful and full of Chi. Her mother is concerned that her energy is un-ladylike and will make her harder to match and find a husband for, and orders Zho to teach her her place.
When armies from the northern regions of Roura led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) begin invading The Emperor of China (Jet Li) decrees that one man from each household must be conscripted to help fight in the war. Mulan secretly steals her ailing father’s armour, sword, horse and conscription papers to take his place. Disguising herself as a man and training to fight, she soon discovers that it’s not until she honours all three of the virtues – brave, loyal, true – that she will have the strength to defeat their enemies and earn her the respect of the Emperor, the nation and her father.
One of the first things that you’ll notice with director Niki Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker’s take on this adaptation is how stunningly real and beautiful it is. Disney’s previous live adaptations have all been opulent but in a more whimsical and fantastical way. Here the beauty lies in a more grounded real world setting as we see China (and some of New Zealand dressed as China) depicted in its historical glory. From quaint farming villages, to sweeping windswept plains and the mountains that bordered the original Mongol regions, to the gilded Imperial City. The battle sequences are grandiose and mix a combination of choreographed fighting with ethereal aerial combat reminiscent of other Asian cinema.
The screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek has made some notable changes to the animated adaptation story. The comedy is replaced by a more deliberate examination of culture and the importance of honour and duty. This feels like Disney’s first venture into a more serious and dramatic tone for their live action adaptations. Here we have a depiction of a young woman wanting to fight for her family, and her country. Her actions and her choices define her more than any of the societal norms and expectations. Mulan proves herself to be a strong independent woman who don’t need no man, and in the current age of #MeToo this film certainly taps into that.
Liu may not be as charismatic or endearing as her animated counterpart. But it adds to the realism of her need to remain undetected and to focus on the task at hand. Her stoicism and determination are what eventually inspire her fellow soldiers to fight under her leadership. And whilst there is a subtle nod towards possible romance in the form of Honghui portrayed by Yoson An it prefers to leave this untapped. Surprisingly it’s the addition of new character Xianniang (Li Gong) who proves to have the most impact. As a scorned witch who shares many similarities with our heroine and sees potential for female dominance in a world currently ruled by men. It’s their dynamic when they share scenes together that adds some spark to a mostly sober portrayal. The inclusion of Asian cinema veterans in Yen, Li and Ma also adds some gravitas in the moments that they are onscreen. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a cameo that also may make you a little glassy eyed.
Mulan is a stunningly beautiful, dramatic and serious venture that may prove to be the tonal shift Disney needs for its future live action adaptations. Watch this film on the biggest screen with the best sound you have possible because anything smaller does not do it justice.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Mulan is available to stream now on Disney+ via Premier Access for $34.99 AUD.