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Crouching ‘Mulan,’ hidden dragon

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It’s tough to argue against the live-action remake strategy that Disney has trotted out over the past five years or so. By presenting live retellings of their beloved animated fare, Big Mouse is able to double down on the value derived from those properties while also introducing (or reintroducing) them to a new audience. Economically, it totally makes sense.

Artistically? Your mileage may vary. But whether you view these films as viable extensions of the originals or little more than cash grabs, there’s no fighting it – they’re here to stay.

The latest in line is “Mulan,” a live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated film. Originally scheduled as a summertime tentpole release for the studio, the film was made available for streaming to Disney+ subscribers, albeit for an additional charge of $30. This move makes it an interesting test case as far as what may happen with movies moving forward; in truth, this movie’s reception and receipts could prove definitional to film’s commercial future.

As for the movie itself? Pretty solid, actually. Director Niki Caro does a good job capturing the epic scale of the thing; her choices evoke the vastness of the proceedings with a deft clarity. The action sequences are on point – there’s an elevated kung-fu movie vibe to the fight scenes that works nicely. The emotional beats are all properly hit and the performances are uniformly strong. All in all, a really good movie.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have actually never seen the original “Mulan.” As such, I have no preexisting prejudices regarding how this new film should land. Granted, I have a baseline cultural awareness of the film, and as such, I recognize that certain significant elements – specifically, the many songs and the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon character – are nowhere to be found. Still, for the most part, I experienced and enjoyed this version solely on its own merits, apart from outside comparison.)

In dynastic China, hierarchies are foundational and strictly enforced. Men are providers and warriors, women are wives and mothers. That is how it is, that is how it has always been.

But Mulan (Yiefei Liu, “Hanson and the Beast”) is … different. Ever since she was a young girl, she has demonstrated an aptitude for harnessing the inner energy known as chi; her gift allows her to perform feats beyond the ken of regular people. Her father Zhou (Tzi Ma, “Tigertail”) is a once-great warrior, hobbled by injury; he sees his daughter’s specialness and is loath to puncture her dreams with reality. Her mother Li (Rosalind Chao, “The Laundromat”) is much more pragmatic, insisting that Mulan adjust to the idea of an arranged marriage and life as a wife.

It all gets upended thanks to Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee, “Alaska is a Drag”), a warlord who has united the many nomadic tribes in an effort to do battle with the Empire. Khan’s personal vendetta is to kill the man who killed his father – a man who just happens to be the Emperor (Jet Li, “League of Gods”) – and he’s willing to wage war on the entire country in order to fulfill it. Among those helping him is Xianniang (Li Gong, “Leap”), a powerful witch.

The decree goes out – every family in the Empire must send one man to fight. Since Zhou is the only man in his family, he agrees to go. To protect him, Mulan goes in his stead, disguising herself as a boy and enlisting. She quickly makes an impression on her superior, Commander Tung (Donnie Yen, “Enter the Fat Dragon”), and her fellow recruits – particularly Honghui (Yoson An, “Mortal Engines”), a young man with whom she quickly connects.

From there, it’s training and then off to do battle. But when Mulan goes to war, she must decide if she can fully hold to the oath that she swore – loyal, brave, true. The first two abound, but with her many deceptions, is it possible for her to be completely true? The fate of the Empire hangs on the answer.

“Mulan” is a good time. Family-friendly action is tough to pull off, but this movie manages it surprisingly well; it’s got some strong set pieces – including one boss fight-type showdown that actually inspired the title of this review – and a generally impressive level of physical execution. That kinetic vibe carries through much of “Mulan.” It’s a lot of fun to watch.

It’s also a movie that isn’t shy about its influences, borrowing liberally from kung-fu and Hong Kong action movies among other sources; Caro and company do good work in crafting interesting riffs on those influences, though there is the occasional stumble.

Liu is wonderful as Mulan, giving a nuanced and entertaining performance. She’s great in the action scenes, with a first-rate physicality, while also lending the character a strong empathetic sense and a wicked sense of humor. Yen is a legend; his Commander Tung is your classic tough guy leader. It’s a sharp turn. An is aw-shucks charming in a very real way, making him fun to watch. Ma is just right as Zhou, evoking the quiet dignity of the wounded warrior. On the other end of the spectrum, Lee is GOING FOR IT as Khan and it is awesome. He’s got that over-the-top sinister energy down pat. And Jet Li as the Emperor, well … that just feels right, you know?

“Mulan” is a perfect film for the moment, a movie that the entire family can sit down and engage with. While these Disney remakes may not sit quite right with some fans of the originals, there’s no denying that they’re good business. And sometimes – as is the case of “Mulan” – they’re not just good business, but good movies.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 04 September 2020 19:50

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