Combustible Celluloid
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With: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, Jet Li, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, Xana Tang, Ron Yuan, Jimmy Wong, Doua Moua, Chen Tang, Nelson Lee, Cheng Pei-pei, Crystal Rao
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek
Directed by: Niki Caro
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence
Running Time: 115
Date: 09/04/2020

Mulan (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Co-Ed Warrior

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Truthfully, Disney's slate of live-action remakes of its older, animated properties is somewhat problematic. It's hard to disguise the fact that they are largely easy cash-grabs. And, disappointingly, the more personal, more experimental entries, like Tim Burton's Dumbo and David Lowery's Pete's Dragon — the ones I like best — have fared the most poorly of the bunch. The ones that stick closest to the originals, like faithful cover versions of beloved songs, seem to have pleased audiences far more. Perhaps they're just comfortable.

The new Mulan, directed by New Zealand's Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper's Wife) — the first one in the bunch to be directed by a woman — is further hampered by its controversial release. After being delayed by COVID-19, Disney eventually came up with a plan to release it on their Disney+ streaming platform. But regular subscribers will need to "unlock" the film for a whopping $29.99 fee. After that, they will have access to see it any time, any number of times.

The good news is that Mulan is terrific, and will be worth it for families to watch together (arguing that $30 is less than what a family of 3 or 4 would spend at a movie theater). It's far more dynamic and alive than most of the other remakes, and it honors the spirit of the original while heading forward into some interesting, modern new directions. As with Zhang Yimou's martial arts films, Caro makes glorious use of color and movement, with energizing camerawork and crisp editing. Unlike most of the other inflated Disney remakes, this tight, thrilling film finishes up at a little under two hours. (And, sorry, there's no sign of Eddie Murphy's Mushu, nor are there any songs.)

Yifei Liu plays Mulan, who has a natural born gift for martial arts. We see her as a child chasing a runaway chicken, leaping from beams and pillars up to the rooftop. Years later, when China is invaded, the Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that one male from every household must enlist and fight. Mulan's father (Tzi Ma) is an old soldier with a lame leg, and the only man in the house, so he volunteers. Mulan cannot let him go, so she disguises herself as a boy and takes his place.

From there, she must conceal her womanhood and figure out things like how to bathe without anyone seeing (her comrades begin to complain about her odor), and, when the battle starts, whether or not to reveal her martial arts prowess, and, in doing so, her true identity. It may feel unchallenging and old-fashioned as it charges towards its happy ending, but in so boldly, straightforwardly asking the simple question, "why can't a woman do all the things a man can do?", it's revolutionary.

Gong Li is amazing as the shape-shifting witch Xian Lang, martial arts star Donnie Yen plays Mulan's good army commander, Jason Scott Lee (known for playing Bruce Lee) plays the bad guy, and Yoson An is the handsome young soldier who befriends the disguised Mulan. (Thankfully, a romantic coupling is not the movie's main goal.) Look also for the legendary Cheng Pei-pei, who was in King Hu's Come Drink with Me (1966) and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

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