Film adaptations are like literary translations. Some follow the story word for word, whether it flows in the new language or not, while others take the tale as a whole and offer a reinterpretation, placing it in a new language and culture. Disney’s fondness for live-action remakes have, more often than not, fallen into the first style of translation - if we are to continue the metaphor. Just look at the shot-for-shot CGI remake of The Lion King or the pale imitation of Aladdin. Niki Caro’s Mulan is the first to buck this trend, translating the much loved musical-action film in a way that captures the heart of the original but still feels entirely its own.
Its initial premise is the same: following several attacks from the Rourans, led by infamous warrior Bori Kahn (Scott Lee), the Emperor of China issues a decree that one man per family must be drafted to quash the Northern Invaders. In the place of her father, injured in war long ago, Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) becomes Hua Jun, warrior of the Imperial Army. Mulan must harness her inner qi (or ch’i) and embrace who she truly is. But this time, the invaders, as well as the suspicious eyes of the other warriors and commanders, aren’t the only threats poised against Mulan. The powerful shape shifting witch, Xian Lang (Li Gong), stands in opposition to our hero, a woman and a warrior similarly empowered by qi on the wrong side of the fight.
Although a few of the story changes are due to historical inaccuracies of the 1998 release (read: the Rourans taking the place of the Huns, whose military efforts were focused on Europe and not ancient China), it is quite clear that Caro wants her Mulan to stand alone distinctly from the original. You won’t find Mushu here, nor any of your favourite sing-along numbers. Even romance is left to the sidelines in favour of exploring Mulan’s skills as a warrior. Shifting away from the songs and cartoonish tendencies that are befitting of, well, cartoons, more so than live-action, is the film's greatest strength. But a keen ear will find musical cues for fan favourite songs scattered throughout Harry Gregson-Williams' dynamic score.
Frustratingly, Mulan is difficult to get to grips with in its opening act. Tonally it is lost: jumping from unnecessarily kitsch set pieces to scenes of slaughtering, albeit 'Disneyfied', and then back again. When it finally settles down into the martial arts elements it allows itself to carry out spectacular training sequences and captivating battle scenes where tensions are suitably high. The fight choreography is masterly, which Caro highlights through creative cinematography wherever possible, making it a far more daring film than you might expect from Disney.
It feels like an understatement to say that Mulan has had a troubled journey to the screen. In August of last year the #BoycottMulan flooded Twitter after Liu shared an image that led to accusations the Disney lead supported police brutality against pro-democracy protests, a controversy that led to Liu stepping down from the presentation at the 2019 D23 Expo. In February of this year, there was uproar at the removal of claimed bi-icon Li Shang, who, according to producer Jason T. Reed, was excluded from the remake due to the belief it was inappropriate for a commanding officer to simultaneously be the love interest of the film. Then, when it all seemed to have died down, people flocked online once again to question the decision to release the film as a Disney+ exclusive with Premier Access for £19.99 ($30).
Nevertheless, those who do choose to watch it, either now or later, will be met by a film that is simply a lot of fun. Liu is a compelling lead who carries the weight of the name Mulan with care and charm, adeptly navigating her fluctuations between self-assurance and self-doubt. Opposite her, Gong’s Xian Lang is persuasive and steely, making the most out of a character that is ultimately rather redundant. While the supporting cast, including Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, and Yoson An as Chen Honghui - both inspired by Li Shang - fill their roles comfortably, imbuing them with emotional resonance in spite of their limited screen-time. Everyone is on the same page with what they’re trying to do, and surprisingly there’s no better blend than Disney and martial arts. But then, we know what they say about the flower that blooms in adversity...
Mulan is available on Disney+ from September 4.
Dir: Niki Caro | Cast: Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Jet Li, Yifei Liu | Writers: Amanda Silver (screenplay), Elizabeth Martin (screenplay), Lauren Hynek (screenplay), Rick Jaffa (screenplay)