Review: Mulan

Score: B

Director: Niki Caro

Cast: Yifei Liu, Tzi Ma, Li Gong, Jason Scott Lee

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rated: PG-13

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.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.