Disney’s new Mulan provides a rousing heroine for young girls ready to move beyond sleeping beauties and little mermaids
Starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee
Directed by Niki Caro
Available Sept. 4 on Disney+
Disney’s new princess is no princess.
Mulan, a young female warrior who leaves her family to defend her country, is based on stories dating back to 4th century China.
You might remember Disney’s earlier version, a 1998 animated musical romp for which for Eddie Murphy provided the voice of a little talking dragon and Christina Aguilera sang what would become her first hit song, “Reflections.”
There’s no talking dragon in the new, live-action Mulan, or any other cutesy animals. This Mulan is, instead, full of color, sights, action, drama, emotion and spectacle, all revolving around a young heroine with the bona fides to become a rousing role model for little girls ready to move beyond sleeping beauties, little mermaids, talking teapots and pumpkins that turn into coaches.
(You do get to hear Aguilera sing “Reflections” again, though.)
The setting is ancient China, where the Emperor issues a decree that every family must send “one man” to serve in the Imperial Army to fight against a ruthless horde of advancing invaders. Mulan (Chinese-born actress Yifei Liu), the eldest of two daughters of an honored veteran warrior who has no sons, takes her ailing father’s place so he doesn’t have to hobble onto the battlefield.
Disguising herself as a young man, Mulan goes off to training in preparation to meet the vicious warlord Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the shape-shifting witch Xianniang (Li Gong), his partner in crime.
Along with all sorts of rigorous exorcises and combat skills, Mulan and her fellow soldiers are taught to be loyal, brave and true, the three “Pillars of Virtue.” Those pillars are so important, they’re etched into the shiny steel blade of Mulan’s sword. But Mulan struggles with the pillar of truth—she knows she’s living a “lie” hiding her true identity from her fellow soldiers, her commanding officers and herself.
But like the flaming red phoenix—the mythological bird—Mulan keeps seeing, we know Mulan, too, will soon rise up and reveal herself, in all her splendor.
Steeped in Chinese culture and capably steered by director Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife, Whale Rider, North Country and McFarland U.S.A) in China as well as her native New Zealand, Mulan is truly something to see—too bad COVID-19 kept it out of theaters, and off the big screen. There are teeming plazas, ornate palaces, fortress cities, snow-capped mountains, and training montages on wide, windswept plains. Characters pop, parade and promenade in all sorts of fabulous costumes, from suits of shiny amour to a spectrum of raiment in all colors of the rainbow; I’m sure Disney hopes to sell a ton of ruby-red Mulan cloaks. An early scene where Mulan and her sister get “made up” for a meeting with their village’s matchmaker is a spectacle in itself, a quick-course lesson in Chinese tradition.
There are clash-y showdowns, chop-socky throwdowns and one especially acrobatic battle atop what looks like a bamboo construction site, with a face-off on a piece of lumber hanging precariously by a strand of rope; I halfway expected Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig to step in and take over for a Mission: Impossible stunt or a James Bond cliffhanger.
Liu, who stars as Mulan, may be a newcomer to most Americans. But at 33, she’s already an established, award-winning actress, singer and model who’s starred in some two dozen films and television shows in China. Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou, is played by Tzi Ma, a Hong Kong-born actor with a long list of American acting credits, including TV’s Bosch, Veep, Madam Secretary and The Man in the High Castle.
The rest of the cast is similarly pedigreed, with many actors who are already stars in Chinese cinema, though they may be somewhat unfamiliar to mainstream U.S. audiences.
Some action scenes seem a bit clunky and choreographed, like they were staged for a Broadway production instead of film. I was disappointed that the movie didn’t do more with the idea that “chi” warriors could run on, up and down walls, like spiders; it’s more of a gee-gosh gimmick than a concept that could have been really cool to explore more visually. And for all the progressive, culturally forward progress of having Mulan’s central character be a fearless warrior heroine, instead of a lovestruck princess, there are still some durable, dependable Disney-touchstone throwbacks. I’m almost certain one of Mulan’s fellow recruits—the doughy, comical Cricket—shares some strands of DNA with Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
“We’re going to make men out of all you,” barks Mulan’s drill sergeant to his greenhorn troops at the start of their training.
He doesn’t know, of course, that the greatest soldier in his entire legion, in the history of his empire, will turn out to be a woman, rising like a phoenix through the centuries as an emblem of achievement, loyalty, bravery and honor.
And she’s not a princess, she’s Mulan.