Disney’s long-awaited live-action take on Mulan prizes loyalty, bravery, and truth, but humour goes out the window – here’s our review.

You wait a dynasty for a woman like this to turn up, then two come along in the same one. Released towards the end of Disney’s animation renaissance of the 1990s, Mulan presents an odd mix of tones, projecting a Chinese legend into an Aladdin­-scale musical spectacle with more or less equal parts comedy and action. While 2020’s Mulan is a significant step-up from last year’s live-action offerings, (especially from the gorgeous but lifeless The Lion King remake) it’s still not a patch on the 1998 animated version.

As in the animation and the legend, Mulan (Liu Yifei) is a young woman who disguises herself as a man and joins the Imperial Army to save her elderly father (Tzi Ma) from being conscripted. While it falls to Mulan and her fellow untested soldiers to defeat an invading force and save the Emperor of China (Jet Li), discovery would still bring the ultimate dishonour to her family.

In this new adaptation, gone are the wise-cracking dragon and the lucky cricket and, most notably, the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. Even the hunky commander has been separated into a mentor figure (Donnie Yen) and a potential love interest (Yoson An). The villains have been replaced too, by Rouran warlord Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful lieutenant Yianniang, (Gong Li) a witch who has harnessed the chi energy that Mulan has been encouraged to suppress all her life.

Director Niki Caro’s approach seems reminiscent of what Kenneth Branagh did with 2015’s Cinderella. This new take on Mulan isn’t humourless, but it’s a comparatively formal version of what came before, with a script (credited to Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin) that offers up more dialogue and a bit more contemplation around the premise.

But like Cinderella, it’s not as slavish to what came before as other Disney do-overs have been, and the more these films stand apart from their forebears, the better they tend to be – David Lowery’s majestic revamp of Pete’s Dragon remains the high watermark for this trend. And if you find it possible to separate this from the animated one, as we’ll be doing it from the rest of this review, Mulan does stand up on its own feet.

Running with the war movie angle, Caro’s film thrives on action and spectacle. This is the first of these movies to get a 12A certificate, which it earns through some large-scale battle sequences that effectively adopt the wuxia fighting style, which makes for some dazzling action sequences that’s just to say family-friendly. With the character gaining a level in the adaptation, Mulan’s early scenes are less screwball comedy than Wonder Woman, with her access to the power of chi livening up her later fight scenes too.

Revising the stakes accordingly, the assorted screenwriters set this version apart by homing in on Mulan’s deception as something that holds her back. That’s not because of any lack of virtue on her part, but she can’t fully be herself as long as she’s pretending to be “himself”. True to Disney form, the film skews slightly too conservative to do anything revelatory with that theme, or with her parallel experience to the female antagonist, but this inner turmoil does bolster Mulan’s arc.

The mantra of “loyal, brave, and true” (emphasis on that last one) that winds up coming back to bite her throughout the narrative does give it a new angle on the values of the story, even if it’s all played a little dry and serious on the whole. The peak of the film’s hilarity comes with a neatly underplayed scene where Mulan attempts to come clean to Yen’s Commander Tung, only for things to go in exactly the opposite direction that she intended.

On the plus side, this is unquestionably the best-looking of all Disney’s recent remakes, perhaps using the near-total lack of CG characters create a lived-in, practical feel to its historical settings. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is glorious, and this is, for once, a new take that doesn’t shy away from bright, primary colours in transferring animation to live-action.

Although the unintended house-style of ‘longer and not quite as good’ for these movies is uninterrupted when you hold it up to the previous version, 2020’s Mulan is worthy of more than an honourable mention. Well directed and played, it breaks ranks from the other more reverent remakes of this kind and delivers something fresher than we were expecting.

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