Disney has run into a problem with their live-action adaptations lately. Their live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King have been box office hits, but surprisingly lifeless. They’ve cared more about addressing bad-faith arguments of YouTubers concerned with plot holes than actually finding a way to tell a new story. Niki Caro’s adaptation of 1998’s Mulan doesn’t have this problem. Although Caro largely follows the same beats of the original, the new version feels vibrant and unique. It knows where to discard elements of the animated feature, strike out on its own themes, and still retain the story’s power. No one sings “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” but Caro’sMulan shows why that’s for the best.
Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a rambunctious child with a strong spiritual chi, but to bring honor to her family, she’s supposed to be a docile, subservient wife. After a meeting with a matchmaker goes poorly, troops from the Emperor arrive conscripting a male from every family to fight in a battle against the forces of Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful sorceress Xianniang (Li Gong). Mulan’s father Zhou (Tzi Ma) has a bad leg and isn’t likely to survive any battles despite his willingness to fight, so in the middle of the night Mulan absconds with her father’s armor, sword, and conscription orders. She poses as Zhou’s non-existent son Hua Jun, and while she succeeds at integrating into the battalion led by Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), she must fight not only Khan’s forces, but the possibility of being discovered and bringing disgrace to her family.
If that synopsis sounds familiar, that’s because it largely holds to the beats of Disney’s 1998 movie with a few key exceptions like the introduction of Xianniang, the removal of Mulan’s ancestral dragon protector Mushu, and there’s also no singing. Rather than transferring the animated movie into a live-action feature as was done with the inert The Lion King or constantly trying to answer dumb fan questions like with Beauty and the Beast (“Why did the servants have to suffer?” “Why didn’t Belle try to escape?”), Mulan comfortably exists on its own wavelength while skillfully gliding over these pitfalls. You don’t need to see Mulan palling around with a CGI cricket because that’s not the kind of movie that Caro is making. Granted, Mulan leans in a more mature direction (it’s the first of the live-action adaptations to carry a PG-13 rating), but it also makes the story more fulfilling.
Freed from the shackles of “Make it like the other thing, but also add tedious explanations and bad CGI”, Mulan has a life and vibrancy that we haven’t really seen in a live-action Disney movie since 2015’s Cinderella, which also had the confidence to depart from its source material and focus more on lavish production design and costumes. Mulan is gorgeous to behold, and I hope that once the pandemic is over, Disney will re-release Caro’s movie into theaters because she absolutely made this film with a big screen in mind. You can tell from the soaring vistas and intricate costumes that even though you’ll be able to watch Mulan on your phone, you’d be better served watching the Disney+ release on the nicest TV available.
The live-action format also allows Caro to give Mulan a distinct tone by pushing it more in the direction of wuxia action movies rather than the Disney mold of the late 90s where set pieces weren’t as important. I didn’t even mind that that the movie explains Mulan’s chi as the reason she can kick back spears and arrows since it helps explain why everyone in this world can’t do that. But even here, rather than getting bogged down in an explanation, the screenwriters turn chi to their advantage by making it part of Mulan’s character arc and an expression of her true self contrasted against Xianniang, who feels shunned by the world for displaying her gifts. Every time Mulan could stumble, like trying to force a relationship when her commander because that’s what happened in the animated feature, it finds a better path, like moving that romantic subplot to a fellow soldier (Yoson An) without making it the centerpiece of Mulan’s journey.
I’m fully willing to admit that Mulan benefits from following a string of disappointing live-action Disney adaptations, but on its own merits, Caro has still crafted an exciting re-telling that retains the story’s emotional core while giving the movie its own personality and tone. Despite the similar plot beats, no one will feel like Caro has made an expensive re-hash of the 1998 movie. 2020’s Mulan stands on its own and sets the template for what other live-action Disney adaptations should aim to achieve by being a thoughtful adaptation rather than a pale imitation.
Mulan will be available on Disney+ for “Premiere Access” starting September 4th for a one-time $29.99 fee. It will be available to stream on Disney+ free of extra charge in December.