‘Mulan’ Review: An Impressive and Important Live-Action Retelling of the Classic Tale

One of Disney’s most beloved stories comes to life with a glorious array of color and action in Niki Caro‘s Mulan.

A new telling of the narrative poem, “The Ballad of Mulan,” which also inspired the 1998 animated film, Yifei Liu stars as Hua Mulan, a young woman who risks her life and her family’s honor to save her father from conscription in the Imperial Army. A war hero in his day, Zhou (Tzi Ma) is now an old man, living with age and injuries from the battles of his own youth. When the Emperor orders one man from every family to join the army, Zhou, who only has daughters, knows he is duty-bound to serve. But Mulan sneaks away in the night, disguises herself as a man, and takes her father’s place.

Myths and fairy tales are full of stories about daring young women who don’t fit into their prescribed societal roles. They fight norms and expectations to forge their own paths. Mulan’s motivation doesn’t come from her own innate sense of destiny or inner feelings of suppressed greatness, but of a simple desire to protect her father. Not unlike Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Mulan willingly gives up her own future to save him. But where Belle’s sacrifice involved a castle and a giant library and servants, Mulan’s sends her into war against a deadly enemy.

Niki Caro takes great care to set the scene of Mulan’s quaint life. We first meet her as a precocious young girl who is clearly different from her younger sister. She is especially close with her father who appreciates all the things that make her so unique, even while having to break the news that her life’s duty will be to get married one day. It could have been a heavy-handed and cliched conversation, but the tender moment between father and daughter rests under the comforting weight that they both know this is an unfair expectation.

As her older, marriageable self, the pageantry of tradition receives a light-hearted touch. Her face is painted, she’s wrapped in traditional dress, her long, flowing hair is tied up into a knot on top of her head, and she shuffles her way to the matchmaker’s house for tea. The silliness of the scene is not to mock these ancient traditions, but to portray Mulan’s lack of attachment to customs that would require her to become a painted doll and judged for her marital worthiness. Caro finds the delicate balance between the importance of tradition and the need some have to unburden themselves from it.

Yifei Liu presents herself as a stoic leading lady, rarely revealing her true emotions about anything, and certainly never when anyone is around to see it. It is trait women rarely get to portray, as the “strong, quiet types” are usually reserved for men. Liu does so with a level of grace and dignity that never leaves us questioning whether Mulan has feelings, only what they are.

Liu is also surrounded by a talented cast of supporting actors, including Donnie Yen, Yoson An, Jun Yu, and Ron Yuan, as well as Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li. These supporting performances are good, even if the characters themselves are virtually indistinguishable, standard-issue military commanders, conscripted soldiers, bad guys. Two scenes between Liu and Li, however, are particularly compelling for what they don’t say, almost as much as for what they do say.

The performances and well-known story would be enough to make Mulan an enjoyable movie. But it isn’t merely enjoyable, it is a film to be savored. Mandy Walker‘s stunning cinematography showcases majestic landscapes and mountain ranges, the serenity of a small lake, the delicate porcelain of a teacup breaking.

Grant Major‘s production design captures scale and scope, from a small, rural village to the Emperor’s sprawling gilded palace. He and costume designer Bina Daigeler developed a striking color palette perfectly suited to a historical epic tinged with elements of fantasy. The use of color also makes this live-action telling feel more closely related, though entirely separate, from its animated sister.

In this age of live-action remakes of animated favorites, Mulan stands out from the rest, not only for its beauty and grandeur but for its overwhelming sense of necessity and importance. Like its heroine, this is a film that forges its own path and is content to be its own magnificent creation.

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