Mulan Review: Disney's Best Live-Action Remake Is a Martial Arts Spectacle

The era of Disney's live-action remakes is in full swing, and the stream of updated takes on beloved animated films probably isn't going to stop any time soon. Despite how frustrating carbon copies like The Lion King may be, they continue to rake in money for the House of Mouse. While some of these updates have crossed the $1-billion mark for Disney, not one of them is a very good movie. Aladdin has its moments, but overall, these remakes are just dull in comparison to their animated counterparts. Mulan, however, totally bucks that negative trend. Disney's latest remake is a delight from top to bottom, setting itself apart from its predecessor while also honoring its legacy, and hopefully providing a new blueprint for these adaptations going forward.

Disney's live-action Mulan is both a remake of the classic animated film and a separate retelling of the Chinese tale. At its core, the story is the same; a young woman named Mulan (Yifei Liu) sneaks off to war in the middle of the night, posing as a man in the army in order to keep her ailing father from battle. Disney's animated version brought more action than most family films at the time, but was still filled with humor and songs. This version of the story is much more serious, focusing heavily on Mulan's journey to find herself and prove that she's capable of much more than women are given credit for.

This iteration of Mulan trades the catchy tunes and talking dragons for enormous sets and excellently choreographed action scenes. Director Niki Caro and her team turn this movie into a full-on martial arts film, both in its action and in its story. A core piece of this film's narrative revolves around Mulan's ability to harness chi, an internal energy that allows her to do extraordinary things. Only men have the power to harness chi, so Mulan is taught at a young age to hide her abilities, or else she'll be seen as a witch and exiled. This is the fate that befell one of the film's major villains, Xianniang (Li Gong), who has turned her anger for being cast out into a powerful force for vengeance.

The parallels between Mulan and Xianniang provide one of the film's best stories, and really offer an improvement on the heroine's growth from the animated movie. Instead of simply taking down an invading army, Mulan comes face to face with a potential future version of herself, forcing her to come to grips with who she is and what she wants to be. It's an inspiring and empowering rivalry that makes Mulan's decision to reveal her identity all the more impactful.

While this film ditches elements of its animated predecessor, it does well to incorporate them into its DNA in subtle and impressive ways. For example, many fans have been disappointed that the classic songs wouldn't be featured in the live-action Mulan, but the melodies of those songs are actually woven into the fabric of Harry Gregson-Williams' impressive score. When Mulan is first putting on her father's armor and preparing to leave for war, you can hear the unmistakable sound of "Reflection" in the background. That integration, along with the heavy use of the animated Mulan's color palate, really helps make up for anything you think might be missing. There's even a really clever nod to the lucky cricket that fans of the original are sure to enjoy.

Yifei Liu does an excellent job as Mulan, radiating confidence and poise throughout the film. She's a fierce warrior when put in combat and brings a sincerity to the role that is desperately needed to make it all work. You believe her abilities as well as her inner struggles.

It's great to see Jet Li and Donnie Yen in this film, especially given how much its action is clearly inspired by their work. While fans will miss Shang as Mulan's commander-turned-love interest, Yen is wonderful in his role as the hardened army officer. It will never not be delightful to see him on screen. The real scene-stealer of Mulan, however, is Tzi Ma, playing the titular heroine's father. The scene where he stumbles trying to retrieve his orders from the army is simply gut-wrenching, thanks entirely to Tzi Ma's performance. There are multiple tear-inducing moments in this movie, and he's at the center of every single one.

There are times when Mulan gets a little too heavy-handed with its themes. The virtues that drive Mulan's story are constantly repeated throughout the film, to the point where they are exhausting. The characters don't need to repeat "loyal, brave, true" every single time they touch a sword or face a difficult decision. We get it. The film does a great job getting that point across on its own, with those on-the-nose declarations not being necessary.

There's an undeniable soul to Mulan that is as rooted in Chinese culture and folklore as it is in the animated movie we've all come to love. It's truly the best of both worlds and I'm just disappointed I can't see it in theaters.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Mulan will be available to purchase on Disney+ Premiere Access beginning September 4th.