It is hard not to immediately take notice of the distinct style that Mulan shows off, from the bustling small villages to the enormous landscape of the Imperial City. Director Niki Caro takes a more grounded approach in the latest Disney remake, introducing a sense of realism into an otherwise fantastical legend. With an impressive mixture of vision, direction, and acting, Mulan is able to separate itself from the original and stand on its own in the ever-growing catalog of Disney live-action adaptations. Although entertaining throughout, Caro’s latest version does not necessarily hold up for its entire 115-minute run time, even with extended battle sequences and scenic pans over the environment littered throughout. Some of the character building seems a bit off, especially when it comes to the film’s main villains, but it is almost to be expected with such a large cast of characters having significant roles.
Mulan (Yifei Liu) is not like the other little girls in her village; she is wild and rambunctious, a child filled with energy and charisma. Even in her younger years, her family knew that she would not conform to what it meant to be a “proper woman.” As she grew older, the burning feeling that she could be something more lingered within her, but Mulan did everything she could to honor her family and conform to the country’s norms. When the country breaks into war, Mulan’s family must contribute one male to the Chinese Imperial Army, a role accepted by Zhou (Tzi Ma), Mulan’s aging and injured father. Refusing to accept her father’s impending death, Mulan sneaks out in the middle of the night disguised as a man, ready to protect her Emperor (Jet Li) and prevent Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) from taking over their territory.
Even the biggest fans of the original’s tone and atmosphere will be pleased with Caro’s impeccable revamp, as the core coming-of-age story is still at the forefront. This movie revolves around Mulan and her struggle to be accepted in a society that refuses to be accepting. Early on in the film, the Matchmaker mentions that a woman should be the “perfect wife” and “invisible to her husband.” These cultural norms make it easy for the audience to root for Mulan, and Liu’s acting puts the icing on the cake.
Where the story doesn’t shine is in its character development. There is a wide range of characters present, with some landing home better than others. Mulan’s friendly rival, Honghui (Yoson An), doesn’t offer much to the story, which is either a knock on his performance or just the role he was given. The same sentiment rings true when taking a look at the film’s main villain, Böri Khan, and his powerful shapeshifting subject, Xianniang (Li Gong). With the story’s development, it would have been better to feel more emotions towards these enemies and peripheral characters.
Mulan is a fun little throwback to the original story, but it also makes a case for being an entirely different film altogether. Caro is able to mix magic and over-the-top action with a grounded, realistic telling of the classic story. Although the plot does seem a little bloated in spots, the inspiring tale of Mulan is told flawlessly. This is a movie that possesses a little bit of everything, from beautiful scenery to compelling action, but above all, it is about the barrier-breaking resolve and growth of its titular character.