Mulan

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Mulan 2020
"This reimagining of Mulan is up there with David Lowery's Pete's Dragon in finding something fresh to say with the material by jettisoning the songs and the emphasis on comedy in favour of bringing its more emotional and adventurous themes to the fore." | Photo: Disney

Some of the recent Disney life-action remakes - and Aladdin, I am definitely looking at you - are little more than pale imitations of the original animations, losing their charm in translation. But this reimagining of Mulan, thankfully, is up there with David Lowery's Pete's Dragon in finding something fresh to say with the material by jettisoning the songs and the emphasis on comedy in favour of bringing its more emotional and adventurous themes to the fore.

Whale Rider director Niki Caro (working from a script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Laurent Hynek and Elizabeth Martin), draws on the fine martial arts tradition of Chinese wuxia to give this tale of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to save her father from battle an epic sweep. Where the 1998 animation played the gender differences down purely stereotypical lines, and already feels dated in its outlook, this version finds much more nuance, with the choices of Mulan (played with verve by Yifei Liu) being as much to do with family honour as they are with the fact that she's female. When a man from each household is called to serve in the army by the emperor (Jet Li), Mulan - who we see feels the Force (Chi in this case, although Star Wars fans will feel right at home) takes up her elderly father's (Tzi Ma) sword in the night to save him from battle.

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This fresh-faced army must train to take on Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who is bent on vengeance and has the handy help of a shapeshifting "witch"  Xianniang (Gong Li), who is embittered after years of being ostracised for her powers. Of course, Mulan faces the threat of being caught out in her lie, particularly at shower time, which provides a few lighter moments, but the action largely centres on how resilient and self-assured she is in even in the face of this. There's a warm sense of pulling together in this film - where the animation constantly highlighted male/female differences for cheap laughs, this one instead shows the unifying force of camaraderie and highlights the fact that many of the perceived differences matter little in the heat of battle.

Xianniang is a great addition offering a sort of tempting 'dark side' to Mulan's light, with Li's nuanced performance making her a lot more complex than simply an 'evil stepmother' type as we see how years of being an outcast have brought her to this. The scriptwriters also subtly beef up the women's roles in other ways, so that we see the perceptions of what is expected of her as 'a young woman' are more societal than the fault of her father. The story, however,  is really here to serve the action - which sweeps in on waves of impressive family-friendly set-piece battles that favour balletic intensity over bloodshed.

Where live action has fallen short of the versatility of the animation in other remakes, here there are no such problems, with wire work and aerial and horse trick shots flowing freely in ways that make you wish that Covid hadn't stopped the film getting the big screen treatment it truly deserves. The graceful addition of a phoenix, symbolising the spirit of Mulan's ancestors, also adds a mystical touch, without being oversentimental and counterpoints well with Xianniang's eagle transformation. This has been made firmly with family audiences in mind  but while it may mean it treats some of its weightier themes lightly, it proves no barrier to spectacle.

Reviewed on: 26 Apr 2021
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A young woman disguises herself as a man to save her father from battle.

Director: Niki Caro

Writer: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin

Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, Pei-Pei Cheng, Xana Tang, Ron Yuan, Jun Yu, Chen Tang, Doua Moua, Jimmy Wong

Year: 2020

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Canada, Hong Kong

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