September 4, 2020

'Mulan' review: What to expect from the Disney film

WATCH: ‘Mulan’ director Niki Caro on reimagining the animated classic

If you’re skittish about returning to newly opened theaters this holiday weekend to see Christopher Nolan’s $200 million sci-fi epic "Tenet," you can still get your fix of spectacular filmmaking with another $200-million epic called "Mulan."

The film is the live-action version of the 1998 animated musical drawn from the Chinese legend about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her disabled father’s place in the Imperial Army.

Sure, the sprawling "Mulan" would look better filling out a giant theater screen, as its creators originally intended. In Russia, China and South Korea, "Mulan" will still play in theaters. But don’t lose hope. Here at home this stirring tale of female empowerment will be available on demand at Disney+.

And whatever its loss in size, "Mulan" makes up for in heart and a spirit that soars.

Yifei Liu plays the role of Mulan in a scene from Disney's MULAN.

You should know that the new "Mulan," strongly directed by New Zealander Niki Caro ("Whale Rider"), drops the songs entirely until the end credits when Christina Aguilera reprises her hit, “Reflection.” And there’s no comic relief in the form of Eddie Murphy’s talking dragon, Mushu. Still, watch the kids perk up when they see what Caro does with the action. The excitement level of "Mulan" 2020 is off the charts.

As Mulan, the astounding Liu Yifei leads a cast of Asian actors that include martial arts icon Jet Li as the Emperor and China’s leading actress Gong Li as a shape-shifting witch who teaches Mulan how to survive and even prosper in a man’s world. But first the film establishes Mulan as a product of the 7th-century when a dutiful daughter is expected to become a dutiful wife. Mulan, who sees herself more as a warrior, finds a way out when she steals her fragile father’s sword, armor and horse and steps in to take his place against the Northern invaders.

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Give the film points for not pushing the romantic angle. Though there are flirtations with Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and fellow soldier Chen Honghui (Yoson An), Mulan remains her own woman, especially when she drops her male disguise and fights as herself in the name country and family. Shock soon turns to admiration among the patriarchy as Mulan, sword at the ready, proves the equal of any man in the battlefield. Heck, she’s better.

Parents should know that "Mulan"'s PG-13 rating is serious. Though no blood is graphically spilled, the hand-and-sword combat is intense. It’s also electrifying. As barbarians attack towns along the Silk Road, Caro stages every encounter with grit and balletic grace. And Liu Yifei is up to every challenge. OK, the G-rated animated musical that audiences remember has been replaced with a rip-roaring war epic that maybe could have used a warmer sense of humor.

But at its core, Caro’s "Mulan" is quietly revolutionary, as it revels in the exhilarating sight of a young woman fighting for and earning her place in the world.

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