Disney’s habit of converting animated classics into live-action films is a mixed bag at best. “Mulan,” however, justifies the practice largely because it doesn’t insist on playing all the first film’s beats.
Premiering this week on Disney+, the new “Mulan” gets into the young warrior’s head and shows why she has such passion defending her father.
As the martial arts wizard, Yifei Liu rolls around walls, battles atop horses and bends at all the right times when opponents shoot arrows in her direction.
Pretending to be a male (since women aren’t allowed to be warriors in the army), she tries to fly under the radar – until an alpha male tests her loyalty. Determined to keep her cover, Mulan brings out a few of those stealth moves and soon the respect is hers.
Strangely, no one suspects she’s masquerading as a male warrior, so she’s able to move into play when attackers hurl blazing stone balls at her men. The “one against many” ploy is genius, particularly since it changes the narrative.
Directed by Niki Caro, this “Mulan” hints at the music from the first, but doesn’t pull a “Jungle Book.” It skips some of the frivolous aspects (sorry, no Mushu), too, and eliminates a relationship that played out in the original.
Lavish landscapes (and a CGI cast of thousands) make this more epic than animators might have imagined.
Caro relishes all the cultural touchstones and doesn’t skimp on many of them. “Mulan” looks like the kind of epic filmmakers produced in the 1960s.
Those animated aspects are overdone (a phoenix looks a little too phony for its own good) but they don’t detract. Liu, in fact, benefits greatly from the ways Caro has shot the action. This is “Matrix”-level work, bolstered by its star’s sense of bravado.
Because she doesn’t want her ailing father to volunteer for the emperor’s army, Mulan takes his place and identifies herself as Hua Jun.
At that training camp, she learns how to withstand the physical and mental rigors. When her fellow soldiers head for the showers, she quickly volunteers for guard duty. She manages to keep them in the dark until she almost blows her cover with Chen Honghui (Yoson An), a clear leader in the pack. When she’s able to out-fight him, he rallies the others to support her.
Then, it’s a matter of showing her worth on the field of battle.
There, “Mulan” wows with big screen-worthy action. The film doesn't light too long on tradition or technique. It gives enough of a taste to make you want more.
Even better, it gives a host of Asian actors a great place to display their skills.
Liu, though, gets the biggest boost of all. "Mulan" introduces her in an exceptional way.
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