By Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Adoring Fan of Imperial Swordplay and Heroism
Despite the audience malaise stemming from countless Disney live-action remakes of established animated classics, I daresay we may very well have finally met that fine-edged balance between source material and reinvention by a gifted filmmaker, so to lure in new viewers to the House of Mouse’s cinematic catalog.
While drawing from the 1998 film about a young girl who defies family honor, tradition and all odds so to protect her country, Mulan may very well stand as the defining turning point in remakes, one that simply amazes and astounds with its wildly entertaining company of gifted Asian actors, non-stop action and visual wizardry, not to mention an inspiring moral lesson for young girls everywhere.
Unless you’ve missed the better part of the 1990s in the world of animation, here’s the gist of the well-worn plot, which takes place centuries ago: a war against the Chinese emperor (Jet Li) is brewing as a vicious warlord (Jason Scott Lee) has his sights set on the palace out of revenge.
An imperial decree goes out to all settlements and villages, requiring that one male from each family be conscripted into service to the Imperial army, to defend the realm again the enemy, who appears to be assisted by a shape-shifting witch (Li Gong). Old crippled war veteran Zhou (Tzi Man) has but two daughters, including his incredibly agile and headstrong first born Mulan (Yifei Liu.)
Realizing that this conscription could mean her father’s certain death due to his infirmity, Mulan opts to steal away into the night with her father’s armor, sword and battle orders, passing as a young man in disguise under Commander Tong (Donnie Yen.) A fine balancing act develops as Mulan attempts to foil the enemy’s plans without revealing her true gender, which could bring dishonor and shame to her family and village.
As the war progresses and sinister plans are revealed, Mulan must decide whether to risk personal honor in the face of possible defeat and death for her countrymen, or to rise above expectations as the true woman warrior she may be destined to become, like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of her former self.
First and foremost, praise must be generously handed to New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife), whose economy of scenes and brilliant storytelling pace arguably makes this the most entertaining action film so far this year.
With an excellent mix of martial arts, swordplay and visual pizzazz (all without much blood on screen, for those of you worried about the kids), Mulan is that much needed, uplifting heroic tale that allows for a capable and challenging female lead, without neglect or disrespect, for actress Yifei Liu to shine and embody all the virtues of her animated counterpart.
The villainous roles aren’t necessarily basic, though Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) gamely steps in as the ominous, black-clad warlord. The surprise performance to watch is that of Li Gong as the flawed and conflicted villainess Xianniang, whose past as a shunned and exiled witch eerily mirrors the path of the titular heroine, both women facing insurmountable odds but willing to go the distance to reach their goal.
It goes without saying that the supporting cast is a pleasant who’s who of Asian action stars, with Jet Li in an uncharacteristic role as the Emperor, fellow martial artist Donnie Yen as the army commander, while other notable names (Rosalind Chao, Yosun An, Nelson Lee, Ron Yuan, Chen Tang and yes, Ming-Na Wen,the original voice of Mulan, in a cameo role) help populate the rest of the cast.
So, in the grand scheme of things, how does the live-action product compare against the original? Well, gone are the musical numbers and the comic relief offered by Eddie Murphy as whimsical dragon Mushu, but in context, none of these elements are missed when we count on plentiful action sequences, stunning film locations, flawless editing and a moving score.
Much brouhaha has been made in regards to the Disney+ streaming service’s price tag on its “Premiere” content on top of the basic monthly subscription. I would counter-argue that a one-time fee of $34.99, considering the option to watch such a great film within the safety of one’s home, not to mention the cost of parking, tickets for parents and kids, a visit to the concession stand, is a fairly good deal.
Sure, the film will eventually be offered at par with the rest of Disney’s catalog, but the same can be said of any other title that soon sees a Blu-Ray and/or online service after several months. In my opinion, Mulan is a veritable treat in a pandemic year that falls short on available goods. No one is pushing you to do it, but you may be very glad you did.