I've long avoided Disney's live-action remakes. They strike me as some of the most creatively bankrupt content of the last decade. But ever since the first trailer for Mulan appeared more than a year ago, I thought this might be the one to bring some originality to the table and be worthy on its own merits. I was mostly right.
Yifei Liu shines in the title role. She's already a star in China, but this should make her one in America as well. The loyal oldest daughter, Mulan rebels against the system that forces her to be only a wife and maiden, when her skills and drive show she's meant for much more. Yet she remains committed to honoring her family, even at the risk of her own happiness, and eventually her own life.
When the emperor (Jet Li) institutes a military draft, her aging father (Tzi Ma) is forced to heed the call. This is basically a death sentence, as he's already feeble and almost certainly would be killed in battle. So Mulan flees under cover of nightfall with her father's armor and sword, joining the ranks with the other untrained boys. And while there are training montages galore, the songs are gone. That fits this more serious-minded war film, but it's only noticeable because the original had such great numbers as "Reflection" and "I'll Make a Man out of You."
And while there's also no Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon, the film still has its moments of comic relief, deploying them as needed. But the film is mostly dark, thanks to the ruthlessness of its villains Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and Xianning (Li Gong). Both actors have experience in martial arts films that serve them well. And director Niki Caro – the first woman to helm one of these live-action remakes – shows considerable skill with the action. She's already proven she can deliver emotional dramas (including Oscar nominees Whale Rider and North Country), but she rises to the occasion here, which should open doors to bigger projects. Director of Photography Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) and the stunts team also excel.
There's no doubt this movie – with its impressive costume design and epic scope – would have played better in a movie theater on a giant screen with perfect sound. But since that's not exactly safe right now, Disney made the right call, giving everyone a chance to see it early. Whether you want to pay $30 to access it is entirely up to you.
But whenever you see it, you're finally seeing a live-action remake that's not a mere nostalgia play, visual effects show-off, or pointless exercise in profit-making. Mulan stands on its own, and it stands tall.
*This film is streaming in the US via Disney+ as a Premiere Access event.