This is not the Mulan you remember. Gone are the unforgettable songs and the talking dragons, replaced with stunning live-action battles and superhuman fight moves. Multiple times in this movie, Mulan (Liu Yifei) leaps into the air to kick a spear or arrow, sending it speeding in a new direction with pinpoint accuracy.
Mulan (2020) is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon if Ang Lee spent more time trying to explain how they could jump between trees. Its main character is Neo if The Matrix took place in ancient China. Mulan is a beautiful new movie that may disappoint die-hard Disney fans. But, more importantly, it's the first live-action Disney movie to actually do something interesting with its source material.
Mulan also isn't just a movie; it's a grand experiment for Disney. If the studio can make a substantial profit from its new $30 "premiere access" (on top of your current Disney+ subscription), this could become the future of everything from Pixar to Marvel, with the rest of the industry following closely behind. If it fails, it could be a one-time offer. (The fact that Disney is already promising Mulan will be available at no extra cost on Disney+ by December makes me think most fans will decide to wait.)
To be honest, there's nothing in Mulan you need to see right now; no big twist at the end to be spoiled. You might miss out on a few fun conversations with your coworkers over Zoom, but that's about it. That said, it's been a while since we got a sweeping new movie — or, at least, a good one — and that may be motivation enough for some to shell out the cash, especially if you're part of a family where $30 would barely cover the cost of movie theater snacks, let alone the tickets.
If you've seen Mulan (1998), you know the basic plot of Mulan (2020). When northern invaders attack China, the Emperor orders every family to provide one man for military service. Mulan and her sister can't fight, so her elderly father has no choice but to serve — until she steals his sword, disguises herself as a man, and joins the war.
The 2020 live-action remake takes this story (which in itself is based on a Chinese folktale) and turns it into a war epic. However, if you know what you're looking for, there are still small Easter eggs for diehard Disney fans. Lines of dialogue and melodies that nod to classic songs from the 1998 film aren't enough to really resonate with anyone who hasn't seen the animated movie, but it's enough to get your heart pumping if you're disappointed there's no Mushu or "Let's Get Down to Business" in this live-action remake.
This Mulan is more interested in action than music. Mulan's superpowers are explained as "chi," a rare quality that an evil witch (Gong Li) and the Emperor himself (Jet Li) also possess. The movie's non-magical combat is thrilling, too, and the invading Rouran army makes for a formidable foe — even if their leader, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), comes across as more one-dimensional than the actual cartoon villains of 1998.
Better yet, the action looks real. Mulan features several sweeping set-piece battles that appear to be mostly CGI-free, leading to some of the best-looking fight scenes we've seen in a Disney movie in a very long time (Marvel included).
But when CGI is used, the results are mixed. It works when illustrating magic, like a soaring phoenix representing Mulan's family or the use of a scarf as a deadly chi-powered weapon. But when CGI is used to edit in some rabbits or cut corners on a gripping final set piece, the result feels half-baked, especially because the rest of the movie is so gorgeous.
Ultimately, Mulan is a very good movie that represents so much more. This could be Disney's path forward, both as a means of distribution and as a method of milking more money out of its animated classics. If it's possible to tell an original and fresh story with an already beloved character, why not keep doing it instead of pumping out shot-for-shot CGI remakes of already-perfect cartoons? And if you can sell those movies straight to fans from the comfort of their homes and still make a profit, why not do that too?
Mulan premieres September 4, exclusively on Disney+.