- Emma Simmonds
- 3 September 2020
Disney's live-action take on its beloved animation is a martial arts epic made with style
'Impossible, a woman leading a man's army,' balks one character in a period adventure that delivers heavily on the feminist feels. Disney's trend for live-action or photorealist takes on its catalogue of animated classics continues with an eye-popping, exhilarating spin on Mulan. Instantly establishing her film as one of the highlights of this recent obsession, Kiwi director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) reimagines the story as a martial arts epic with bags of visual va-va-voom.
Making its debut on Disney+ Premier Access (and thus requiring an additional fee to watch) is a film of inarguable cinematic scope, yet a production this finessed is well worth forking out for on any sized screen. Honouring the animation with physical and musical nods and in a lively colour scheme, it loses the songs and chatty dragon sidekick and goes big on the earnest emoting, whilst adding action – not exactly for the ages, but that's flamboyant and thrilling.
The essential story remains the same. When Northern invaders, here led by the dastardly Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his witch sidekick (Gong Li), threaten the Kingdom, the Chinese Emperor (Jet Li) orders each household to send one male soldier to join the Imperial Army. With her elderly, frail and hugely beloved father (Tzi Ma) their family's only option, Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) sneaks out under cover of darkness to take his place, posing as a son, Hua Jun, as she reports to Donnie Yen's Commander Tung for training.
Caro has plenty of form with female empowerment tales (and with its young girl defying centuries of patriarchal tradition, Whale Rider is strikingly similar in theme) and her mastery of the spectacle consistently impresses; she shows herself an able action director, nodding to martial arts and action epic tropes, while delivering something that feels distinct. If Mulan's story and messaging (about finding your path, staying true, differing notions of honour) is emphatically broad-brush, it's designed to appeal to a wide demographic – kids and grandparents will have no trouble engaging with the material.
Where it succeeds most notably is in the casting. Liu makes a credibly understated and determined heroine, and there's some memorable emoting from Pei-Pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as the sour-faced and scandalised Matchmaker in more humorous scenes. Aged upwards as the Emperor, Jet Li is almost undercover until he gets to unleash his own fighting chops, while a scarred, hirsute and sneering Jason Scott Lee is a terrifically menacing Disney baddie.
But it's the great Gong Li who stands out, with her billowing sleeves, scale-covered cloak and white face paint, her Xianniang is not only fabulous but a smart, poignant addition to the story. Even more powerful, Xianniang's journey mirrors and acts as a warning to Mulan that women are expected to know their limits. As this formidable pair spar, dazzle in battle and gain a growing sense of solidarity, they're certain to provide unforgettable inspiration to young girls everywhere.
Available to watch on Disney+ Premier Access from Fri 4 Sep.