Disney’s ongoing foray into rehashing its existing classic properties as live-action remakes has done the unlikely with “Mulan.” Namely, by giving its new incarnation a reason to exist.
There is nothing more disrespectful to an existing work of art than to simply recreate it without having something new to say (“The Lion King,” I’m looking at you). “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast” were barely better. “Mulan,” at last, has its heart in the right place of revisiting the story, but letting this incarnation stand on its own, without using it as a sing-along with any of the original music numbers.
Liu Yifei (“The Forbidden Kingdom“) plays the titular Hua Mulan, a warrior in a woman’s body (in a setting where being a woman forbade them from being able to serve in the army). When the Emperor calls up one male from every family to serve in his imperial army to defend against invading Northern invaders, Mulan’s father is too old to fight, and he has had only daughters. Rather than let her father join the fight at his age, she runs away and joins impersonating as Hua Jun, a boy.
From there she has to hide her gender while proving herself to her army companions. The film takes the bulk of its arc from the animated original, but it omits the musical numbers, and treats the film as a straight up young adult (because Disney) adventure fantasy. It is a far better film than 2016’s Matt Damon-led “Great Wall” by being earnest without taking itself too seriously. It’s also very much not trying to replace the animated 1998 version. Framed far more like a traditional big-budget historical fiction film out of China, rather than trying to set up for a new ride or toy line to be found at Disneyland (whenever it opens again).
The film opens a bit on uneven ground, trying to find its tonal balance between light hearted and the dramatic, but by the time Mulan has joined into the army, its found it’s voice.
It’s not a great film, and there are some omissions in narrative that create flaws in the story’s logic (as when Mulan rides off to engage the attackers, and does various heroic things, but entirely out of sight of any of her companions – so when they comment about how she is the greatest warrior of them all – they haven’t ever actually seen her fight the enemy).
Rated PG-13, “Mulan” is available via Disney+ now for those users who opt for the Premiere Access level (for $30), and for free to all Disney+ subscribers starting on December 4th.