Disney+ UK film review: Mulan (2020)
Matthew Turner | On 04, Sep 2020Reading time: 4 mins
Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li
Watch Mulan (2020) online in the UK: Disney+
Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan was set to be one of the big blockbusters of the summer before the coronavirus pandemic put paid to its theatrical release plans. The cinema’s loss has been Disney+‘s gain because the film is now available to stream on the service, albeit with a £19.99 premium price tag to shore up the losses. So, is it worth the money? That would be a resounding yes, whether you’re a fan of the original or coming to the story for the first time.
Drawing from both the 1998 cartoon and the story’s original source, a folklore song called The Ballad of Mulan, the film is set in 4th-century China, where young Mulan (Liu Yifei) lives in a small village with her mother, father (Tzi Ma) and younger sister. Indulged by her family, but frowned upon by the local villagers, she spends her days in more traditionally male pursuits such as fight training and horse riding.
When evil warlord Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) attacks China, the Emperor (Jet Li) demands one male from each family volunteer in the army, prompting Mulan’s aging father to step forward, since he only has daughters. Determined to save her father from certain death, Mulan steals his horse, armour and sword and joins the army, disguised as a boy. But how long will she be able to keep her secret?
Directed by Niki Caro (who made Whale Rider), the film takes clear cues from the likes of Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That’s most obviously apparent in the film’s adoption of the wuxia fighting style, where the characters are able to run up walls and bounce off blades in the course of their combat – definitely not something that appeared in the 1998 film. It’s a bold decision and it pays off beautifully, giving the fight sequences a beauty and a balletic quality, but also maintaining a little of the cartoonish element too.
The film looks stunning too, thanks to jaw-droppingly gorgeous set design work, a strong use of colour and some impressive location choices (most of which are courtesy of Caro’s native New Zealand). In terms of sheer visual specactle, it’s head and shoulders above Disney’s other live-action remakes.
As to the story itself, it’s a compelling mixture of the familiar and the original. On the one hand, many of the much-loved scenes from the 1998 film are faithfully recreated, from the comedy bit at the match-maker’s to the bathing scene (where Mulan’s secret almost gets discovered by a fellow soldier) to an exciting sequence involving an avalanche.
On the other hand, there are several changes and some of them may not sit well with purists – there will doubtless be people who bemoan the loss of Eddie Murphy’s comedy dragon Mushu, the ambiguity of Mulan’s sort-of love interest (replaced here by a different character) and, of course, the songs. However, the live-action version brings several welcome changes in their stead, not least Gong Li as Xianniang, a woman with supernatural powers who is helping Böri Khan.
The introduction of Xianniang strengthens and intensifies the film’s powerful themes of independence and defying traditional gender roles. It also gives the film a surprisingly emotional take on a classic Star Wars moment, where Xianniang points out to Mulan that they are the same (both women trying to fit into a man’s world, both having to disguise their true selves) and tries to tempt her to the Dark Side.
In fact, the film is filled with strong messages and moments, some of which take on extra layers of resonance. The simple line “I believe Hua Mulan”, for example, seems destined to enjoy the same status as “Wakanda Forever” in the very near future.
On top of everything else, the film has a terrific cast. Liu Yifei‘s performance here is note perfect, a fiercely determined turn that doesn’t feel the need to soften the edges (the love interest is commendably played down as a result). Gong Li makes a superb adversary as Xianniang and there are strong turns from the likes of Donnie Yen (as the Commander of the army), while Jason Scott Lee goes full Disney villian as Böri Khan and is clearly enjoying himself.
This is spectacular family entertainment and perhaps the best of the live-action Disney remakes to date. See it on the biggest screen you can, even if that just means watching it on your TV rather than your tablet.
Mulan (2020) is available on Disney+ for a one-off Premier Access fee of £19.99. It will be available as part of a regular £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription from 4th December 2020.