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Review: ‘Mulan’ becomes the master of her destiny, but can’t fight free (Includes first-hand account)

As Disney continues to dig into its archives for live-action feature film material, it’s always interesting to see how they opt to update the narrative for a contemporary audience. Whether the animated film is 20 or 70 years old, it’s likely to include some elements that made for a charming fairy tale but could be altered to better represent current ideologies. Even though the pictures featured female protagonists, they weren’t always the heroes of their own stories and Disney is now taking the opportunity to rectify the matter. The latest film to get the live-action treatment is Mulan.

Since she was a child, Mulan (Yifei Liu) possessed the chi of a fierce warrior. Unfortunately, that wasn’t considered acceptable female behaviour, so she was encouraged to hide her natural inclinations and act more traditionally ladylike. Years later, the emperor (Jet Li) and the nation is threatened by a cruel army that’s leaving a path of death and devastation in its wake. To prevent the fall of the empire, one son from each family is drafted into the army. As Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma) was blessed with only daughters, he steps forward as their family’s representative in spite of his ill health. As her mother is convinced he will not return, Mulan steals away in the middle of the night with her father’s armour and poses as a young man to take his place in the army. Mulan proves to be an invaluable warrior, earning her spot on an elite squad but feeling guilty for betraying the samurai code to be loyal, brave and true.

This film is a bit more serious than the animated picture as there’s no Mushu to crack jokes or make snarky remarks. The live-action version still has a sense of humour, but it’s more mature and natural. The lack of a sidekick also leaves Mulan to be more proactive and self-reflective. In addition, a new character is introduced to nudge Mulan in the right direction. Another female warrior (Gong Li) who practices dark magic is aiding the enemy, though her life parallels Mulan’s and could be a glimpse of her future. This need to still have an evil witch stand opposite the hero seems unnecessary in this narrative since Mulan’s place as an outcast and the consequences of her deception are already established. On the other hand, Xianniang does initiate some captivating action sequences.

While the picture incorporates most of the key events from the original movie, there is one distinct and notable difference — Mulan reveals her own identity to her fellow samurai. Rather than being accidentally discovered, she makes a conscious decision to live up to the code and accept the consequences. It’s a very powerful moment because she takes control and accepts her true spirit, realizing it is only with the strength of self-actualization that she can best contribute to the war efforts. Having finally gained confidence in her own abilities, she decides the validation of her comrades is less important than the success of their mission. The actual scene is a little over the top as she lets her hair out and sheds her armour, as if being a woman also makes her impervious to weapons. But the battlefield sequence makes up for the over-dramatization.

The action scenes are a mix of medieval weaponry, intense choreography and wire fu. The use of large, mobile catapults to hurl flaming projectiles is a bit slow, but certainly effective in creating a difficult obstacle to overcome. The hand-to-hand combat on the field is well shown, though in some instances it’s the movie’s weaker element and acts as more of a means to an end — which may be attributed to director Niki Caro‘s lack of action experience. Similarly, the wire fu is sadly used sparingly, but still elevates the battle sequences when present, and makes Mulan and Xianniang appear incredibly impressive against their opponents. Conversely, the more dramatic elements of the story surrounding Mulan’s phoenix-like evolution all play very well.

The cast is an excellent selection of actors familiar from Asian cinema, which adds to the story’s ability to feel genuine. Liu understands the nuances of Mulan’s struggle with her identity, while being equally if not more competent in acting in a convincing fight. Gong Li brings her experience to the role, also conveying the complexities of her character’s choices and position — it would actually be interesting to see a prequel featuring Xianniang and how she came to her current path. Donnie Yen plays Mulan’s commander, though the group of guys portraying her squad each bring unique personalities to the table and play a larger role in her daily interactions.

The desire to make certain points about women’s empowerment can bog down the script occasionally with its heavy handedness, but overall it’s an enjoyable adaptation that sets out to deliver the right messages.

Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen and Gong Li

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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