Taken from the age-old story, “The Ballad of Hua Mulan,” this version begins with Mulan (Yifei Liu, Crystal Rao plays the younger version) as a headstrong little girl blessed with clear physical and spiritual gifts. Her family and fellow villagers greet this mischievous energy with disdain: Little girls must grow into subservient wives. Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma), a war hero, urges her to suppress her abilities and embrace a more traditional role. Accordingly, her mother (Rosalind Chao) sets up a meeting with a matchmaker, which ends in a slapstick disaster.
Mulan’s life takes a dramatic turn when Rouran invaders begin ransacking the countryside. They are led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a ruthless warrior with a vendetta against the Emperor (Jet Li). Khan is aided by Xianniang (Gong Li), a shapeshifting sorceress who mows down just about everyone in her path. The Emperor responds to this threat by conscripting an army from the local villagers. As he has no daughters, Mulan’s ailing father offers his services to the Empire. Before he can hobble into certain death, Mulan stuns everyone by slipping away in the night to enlist.
As women are forbidden to be warriors, Mulan must disguise herself as a man. Although she conceals the extent of her fighting talents, Mulan still makes quite an impression on her fellow soldiers: Dashing, compassionate Honghui (Yonson An) finds himself drawn into a friendly rivalry with Mulan, while Commander Tung quickly rewards her with respect. As the fateful battle approaches, Mulan must confront the truth of her powers and the consequences that come with her actual identity.
While all of this will sound familiar to fans of the animated version, this Mulan builds in a key variation from the ground up: Where the cartoon version felt like it was molded to sell Happy Meal toys and direct-to-video sequels, this one seems noticeably more serious and grounded in reality. Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking sidekick has been trimmed away, as have all the sweeping musical numbers. In their place, director Niki Caro adds many authentic touches that pay a meticulous respect to Chinese culture and history. (The Rouran replace the Huns, for example.) It’s a smart move that pays off with a richer and more compelling storyline.
That narrative gets further aided by some of the most gorgeous visuals in recent movie memory. Just about every shot in Mulan brims with warmth and color. No doubt a lot of these scenes of mountains and throne rooms have been goosed with CGI, but they feel real, and that’s all the difference in the world. The action scenes showcase Mulan’s monk-like superpowers, but Caro makes sure that every action beat is both easy to follow and exciting.
None of that would matter diddly poo without Liu’s solid lead performance. Her Mulan struggles between her duty to family, to tradition, and to herself. She plays the character as empowered and touchingly vulnerable, thus making Mulan an easy heroine to root for. Of the all-star supporting cast, Li creates the strongest impression as a bitch-witch with a massive chip on her shoulder.
It’s taken Disney a few tries to successfully translate one of their animated classics into a live-action epic. Recent offerings have ranged from agreeably mediocre (Dumbo) to unbelievably lazy (The Lion King). Mulan nails it by taking the original story in a direction it needed to go anyway. It’s more respectful and involving, all at once. I won’t say it’s perfect–the epilogue really runs out of steam, a little less goodbye would’ve gone a long way–but this version of Mulan gets a lot more right than wrong. For anybody who’s been frustrated by paying good money for cheap copies, here’s an old tale that feels brand new again.
115 min. PG-13. (Note for parents: This Mulan is far less cutesy than the animated version. While it’s not terribly violent or gory, some scenes of battle and death might be too much for younger or more sensitive viewers. A little bit of viewer discretion is advised.)