Arts movie review

A legendary tale retold in a much more serious tone

The remake differs significantly from the original in an attempt to be more faithful to the legend

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The iconic matchmaking scene from the animated version is translated into live action starring Liu Yifei as Mulan.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Directed by Niki Caro
Screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Starring Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee
Rated PG-13
Streaming on Disney+

Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), even as a child, possesses a qi so powerful that everyone in her village thinks she is a witch. Although her father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), takes pride in Mulan’s abilities, he is forced to make her understand the stereotypical idea of how a woman brings honor to her family only through marriage. Over the years, Mulan gradually learns to keep her qi hidden.

One day, imperial soldiers come to the village and ask every family to send one man to fight in a war against the Northern invaders, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his army. Hua Zhou pledges to join the Imperial Army since he does not have any sons. Mulan realizes that her ailing father will not return from the war, and she takes his place in the army by disguising herself as a man. The rest of the story unfolds as Mulan learns to harness her inner potential and fights to bring honor to her country and family.

Having watched Mulan, the animated film of 1998, I was very excited about its live-action adaptation. Needless to say, it was impossible for me to stop myself from comparing every scene in the 2020 Mulan with the animated counterpart. Of all the live-action adaptations or photorealistic computer-animated remakes of classic Disney animation films, Mulan is by far the most distinct from its animated version.

We are introduced to several characters that were not present in the animated version such as the witch (Gong Li) who fights alongside Bori Khan. If you’ve grown up on the animated film, you’d miss not having Mushu, the miniature dragon, by Mulan’s side and the humorous moments they share. However, the guardian phoenix that replaces Mushu in the new film as a spiritual representation of Mulan’s ancestors guides Mulan through her journey.

Despite the lack of songs, live-action Mulan is lengthier than its animated version, thanks to the introduction of several extra scenes in the movie besides the elaborate action sequences. The characterization of Mulan has been changed significantly in the new movie; i.e., the Mulan we see at the end of army training in the animated version is what we see right from the beginning in the live-action adaptation. In the live-action version, Mulan’s actions reflect the three virtues — loyalty, bravery, and truth — to the greatest extent possible. We see this in every scene, including the one where Mulan’s gender identity is revealed to the others in the army. The lyrics “Am I loyal, brave, and true?” from the song that plays during the end credits reflect the question Mulan asks herself throughout the movie. I liked this particular change in the movie because it portrays Mulan as someone who cares deeply about being true to herself rather than continuing with her lie in the hopes of getting away with it.

One of the best things about Mulan is the exceptionally choreographed action sequences, which are especially engaging in this live-action adaptation. It is evident that Liu put in a lot of effort into these stunts, and she pulls them off with elegance. The background score adds to the intensity of the action scenes while keeping us engaged with the movie.

Liu shines in the action sequences through a brilliant display of her martial arts skills. However, when it comes to the non-martial arts sequences, her acting is mediocre at best, with the same expression for the most part. Ma brings Hua Zhou’s character to life by capturing even the subtlest of the conflicting emotions he feels when struggling to explain society’s gender stereotypes and expectations to his daughter. Jason Scott Lee essays his role in a way that conveys that Bori Khan is the personification of evil, right from the beginning.

If you are a huge fan of the animated Mulan for its humor and songs, you might be disappointed with its live-action adaptation. However, if this is your first time getting to know the legend of Mulan, chances are that you will find this movie quite entertaining.