No Mushu (!), no Cri-Kee the cricket and no Li Shang. And of course, no characters in this live-action version of Mulan end up breaking into songs. In other words, New Zealand director Niki Caro of 2002’s Whale Rider fame, clearly isn’t interested to give us a direct remake of the beloved 1998 animated film of the same name.
Instead, what we have here is a mature take of Mulan that leans more on the grounded realism. Semi-grounded realism, to be exact with a shade of fantastical elements including the added CG red phoenix and Gong Li’s shapeshifting witch character of Xian Lang.
The basis of the story remains the same, albeit with a few changes here and there. At the beginning of the movie, we learn that little Hua Mulan (Crystal Rao) is unlike any other girls of her age. She knows how to use a sword and at one point, even capable of channelling her qi to showcase her unique physical abilities.
As time passes, her parents (Tzi Ma’s Hua Zhou and Rosalind Chao’s Hua Li) are more interested to see her (now played by Liu Yifei) finding the right suitor and get married. Then one day, the Emperor of China (Jet Li) demands every male representative from each family in the village to serve in the Imperial Army to fight against the invading Rouran army led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
But unlike other families, Hua Zhou has no son other than his two daughters Mulan and Hua Xiu (Xana Tang). He ends up taking their place, even though he has to do so with a crippled leg. Realising that her father isn’t fit to go to the battlefield again, Mulan chooses to take his sword, armour and the conscription paper. She disguised as a man and galloping her way to the war, where she finds herself in a training camp led by Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) with other recruits including Honghui (Yoson An) and the oddly-named Cricket (Jun Yu) — an obvious name-only reference to the Cri-Kee character in the 1998 animated film.
Caro’s decision not to merely settling down with a slavish re-creation of the animated film is undoubtedly a bold but necessary move — something that Disney has done over their last few live-action remakes, namely 2019’s Aladdin and The Lion King. It was also a refreshing change of pace, even if the live-action Mulan going as far as omitting the fan-favourite, fast-talking Mushu dragon previously voiced by Eddie Murphy.
And yet, the plot — credited to not one but four screenwriters including Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek — functions more like a serviceable narrative that chooses to play safe with the typical Disney formula. The mature approach, coupled with the less stereotypical depiction of unlike the way Disney previously tackled the overall theme and culture in the animated Mulan is admirable. But only up to a certain extent, where they could have embraced wholeheartedly instead of a watered-down version trying to make it as accessible as possible for both Western and Chinese audiences. The live-action Mulan also strangely lacking the emotional weight desperately needed in this movie.
There are a few obligatory comic relief as well, with the earlier scene involving a dolled-up Mulan meeting a matchmaker (Cheng Pei-Pei in a cameo appearance) over a tea-pouring session comes to mind. However, some lighthearted moments tend to feel awkwardly misplaced.
As for the cast, I have my initial doubt over the casting of Liu Yifei as Hua Mulan. But upon seeing her on the big screen, she radiates sufficient charisma and personality to her role. Liu also excels in her physically-demanding performance, in which she reportedly did 90% of her own stunts. From swinging the sword to riding a horse and shooting an arrow, she performed them both gracefully and convincing enough even for a non-martial arts star.
And that’s not all, she even upstaged two screen veterans Donnie Yen and Gong Li in this movie simply because they aren’t given enough depth in their otherwise superficial roles. Which is actually a pity since Yen’s no-nonsense portrayal of Commander Tung could have used a little more push in the character department. The same also goes with the talented Gong Li, whose role of a witch is largely distracted by her heavy makeup and elaborate costume than her acting itself.
Jason Scott Lee brings adequate support to his antagonist role of Böri Khan while Jet Li doesn’t get to do much in his barely-there cameo as the Emperor of China. Tzi Ma, in the meantime, made good use of his limited screentime to play the stern father of Hua Mulan and Yoson An’s charismatic performance as Mulan’s fellow recruit and potential love interest manages to make quite an impression.
Given the fact that this is Niki Caro’s biggest-budgeted project to date — a reported US$200 million budget at her disposal, she proves to be a better-than-expected visual stylist when comes to the action sequences. The action in Mulan is both well-choreographed and shot with enough style and grace reminiscent of the ones seen in the likes of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002). She also employs some stylish slow-motion and intricate, yet fluid camerawork — all of which are beautifully shot and framed without resulting into the shaky-cam aesthetics commonly seen in today’s action genre.
The rest of the technical fronts are just as spectacular, with the sweeping vistas of the New Zealand and China locations worth mentioning here. Grant Major’s production design along with Bina Daigeler’s costume design is equally praiseworthy and so do Mandy Walker, whose crisp and stunning cinematography made this a cinematic experience best seen on the big screen.
Despite some of the flaws, the live-action Mulan remains a decent entry, even though it could have been better. But looking at the bright side, it’s a step-up effort for a Disney’s live-action remake over the tepid triple-whammies of last year’s Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King.