Back in March, which simultaneously feels like just last week and also about ten years ago, I attended the world premiere of Mulan at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. Since I was lucky enough to see this movie on the big screen I became something of a zealot when people began discussing a possible premium digital release. The epic battle sequences in Mulan deserved the big screen, and I felt confident it was worth the wait. Unfortunately, COVID-19 caused theaters across the country to close. After a six month delay, we are just a few days away from the digital release. I stand by my statements that Mulan would be worth the wait for a theatrical release. It is also worth paying $30 for Premiere Access.
The movie opens with narration from Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), talking to his ancestors about his young daughter Mulan (Crystal Rao). She demonstrates her strong “chi” by performing great feats of balance and acrobatics when chasing a runaway chicken. Unfortunately, according to her father , “Chi is for warriors, not daughters.” He tells her that a daughter’s duty is to bring honor to her family.
Years later, Mulan is a young woman (Liu Yifei) meeting with the village matchmaker (Cheng Pei-pei). The appearance of a spider causes that meeting to end in disaster, with the matchmaker declaring Mulan has brought dishonor to the Hua family. When invaders from the north threaten China, the Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that every family must supply one man to join the Imperial Army. Mulan defies tradition, the law, and her family’s wishes by running off to join the army in her injured father’s place.
Chi, which is a recurring theme in the film, generally refers to a person’s life force or energy. In Mulan it also seems to refer to the ability to perform the gravity-defying Wuxia-style fighting. If you are unfamiliar with Wuxia, just think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The action sequences, of which there are plenty, are the main reasons Mulan ideally needs to be experienced on a big screen. There is simply no way your television is going to adequately showcase the intricate choreography taking place.
Mulan splits the role of Li Shang (the general and eventual love interest in the animated version) into two different characters. Fellow recruit Chen Honghui (Yoson An) acts as Mulan’s friend and ally during her army training, while Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) serves as her leader and mentor. This allows Mulan to have a few sparks with Chen without the inappropriateness of a relationship with a commanding officer. The live-action version also adds the character Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shape-shifting witch aligned with the invaders, to give another example outside of Mulan that women can serve as warriors in battle. These additions help to reinforce the feminist notes in the film.
Fans of the original animated film have been vocal in their disappointment that this version of Mulan does not contain the classic songs or characters like Mushu. Director Niki Caro tries to ensure they will not be disappointed by throwing in a few fun Easter eggs. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams created a score that nods to the songs from the original film in ways that are anything but subtle. There is a moment in the second act where the music leans heavily on “Reflection” that gives me actual chills. The result is a surprising and pleasant sense of nostalgia from a film that is otherwise very different from its animated predecessor.
The PG-13 rating for Mulan feels a little strong, as the film is not bloody or overly violent. The battle scenes have a fantasy feel to them that keeps things from getting too dark. That said, the action sequences and sword fights are plentiful. It would be appropriate to categorize Mulan as an epic war film, but there is plenty of heart and emotion to balance the story.
The battle scenes alone would make Mulan worth watching, but the engaging story, beautiful visuals, and strong performances give you even more reasons to hit “purchase” on your Disney+ app. While it would certainly be better on the big screen, that is unfortunately not an option. Don’t worry, though, it is still quite enjoyable when you view it at home.
Mulan will be streaming exclusively via Premier Access on Disney+ beginning September 4, 2020.
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence)
Runtime: 115 minutes
Acclaimed filmmaker Niki Caro brings the epic tale of China’s legendary warrior to life in Disney’s “Mulan,” in which a fearless young woman risks everything out of love for her family and her country to become one of the greatest warriors China has ever known.