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Mulan (2020)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Crouching Tigress, Absolutely No Dragon"
4 stars

The announcement that Disney was planning on doing a mega-expensive live-action remake of its 1998 animated hit “Mulan” did not exactly fill my heart with glee when I first heard about it. After all, while the original film had its good points—some striking visuals, a reasonably respectful take on Asian culture and a gender-bending plot line that, for an animated film targeted at family audiences, was almost radical in nature—it did hedge its bets by including elements designed to make the stranger stuff more palatable to less adventurous viewers despite being wildly out of place, such as songs, a romantic subplot and a cute dragon sidekick with the ethnically-dubious voice of Eddie Murphy. The other problem is the inescapable fact that while Disney has been doing live-action versions of their animated films for a few years now to much financial success, most of them, such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella” and “The Lion King” (which was technically animated as well, but never mind), were pale and lumbering imitations of the originals. The only one that really succeeded was David Lowry’s shockingly lyrical and moving take on the less-than-stellar “Pete’s Dragon” (2016) and that was because it was the only time in the short history of these remakes where you got the sense that the film was being made for artistic reasons as well as financial.

Happily, it doesn’t take too long to realize that this version of “Mulan” is far closer in spirit to “Pete’s Dragon” than the other remakes. Instead of slavishly following the original to the point of pointlessness, it discards the stuff that didn’t work and wasn’t necessary the first time around (no forced romance, no dragons and no songs until a pair of Christina Aguilera songs—one a re-recording of a song she did for the original film—that play somewhat jarringly over the end credits), keeps and improves upon the stuff that did work and the result is a film that is unquestionably better and more exciting to watch, even at home, than its predecessor. In fact, the only real flaw is that it might prove to be a little too exciting for some members on the younger end of the target audience scale to handle, but we will get to that a little later.

Although a few changes have been made here and there, the basic plot parameters are relatively identical. When we first meet Mulan, she is a headstrong girl who possesses the kind of agility, grace and mindset that her indulgent father, Hua Zhou (Yzi Ma), has only seen in the most advanced of warriors. Unfortunately for her, this is a time when only men are allowed to be warriors and so when she reaches adulthood, Mulan (Liu Yitei) is forced to conceal her gifts and attempt to honor her family and village by having the local matchmaker find her a suitable mate. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t go well and things get worse when the vile Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) begins leading his forces, which include the all-powerful witch Xian Lang (Gong Li), into attacking the territories belonging to the Emperor (Jet Li) with the ultimate plan of killing him for revenge and taking over all of China. To face off against the onslaught, the Emperor commands that every village in China is to send one male off to fight in the upcoming war. Mulan’s family is chosen for the honor but since there are no sons, he father, who is old and still bears the wounds from his previous service, is prepared to go even though he realizes that it will almost assuredly be a death sentence.

Before he can, Mulan sneaks off into the night with his sword, armor and conscription scroll to take his place in the army, binding her breasts and covering her hair in order to maintain the illusion, though she is forced to think fast when faced with the prospect of a group shower. Although she almost immediately finds a rival in fellow warrior-in-training Honghui (Yoson An), she is viewed a little more sympathetically by their leader, Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), who is so impressed with his new soldier’s capabilities that he even considered that he considers introducing Hua Jun, the name Mulan has assumed, to his own daughter as a possible match. While Mulan likes finally being respected for her skills, she is keenly aware that she is living a lie and this causes much conflict for her even before the inevitable attack by Bori Khan and the even-more-inevitable moment in which her ruse is revealed at the worst possible time.

“Mulan” was directed by Niki Caro, who has made some fine films in the past (including her wonderful 2002 breakthrough “Whale Rider”) but none that would have logically suggested that she had a film of this sort in here. Rather than being a over-the-top cartoon aimed squarely at little kids, this is a full-throated adventure epic that is closer in tone and spirit to latter day martial arts spectaculars like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers.” Visually, the film is absolutely spectacular with every scene practically vibrating from the bold and vibrant colors and elaborate production design that is on display throughout—this is one of those films where you almost want to randomly pause in the middle of a scene in order to study what is on the screen at greater length. As for the battle scenes, they are impressively staged as well and are never less than exciting, though this leads to the one issue that some viewers may have with it. Although the combat scenes are not gory by any stretch of the imagination—I cannot recall a single visible drop of blood being shed during the entire running time—the battles do ring up a considerable body count after a while. This won’t matter too much to martial arts fans but it might prove to be too much for little kids, especially without the advent of the animation process to stylize the carnage to take some of the edge off. Put it this way. If your kids can handle the intensity of the action set pieces of Marvel films like “The Avengers” without being overwhelmed, they should be okay with this but those who cannot should probably wait a little while before giving it a shot.

At the same time, “Mulan” also works because the quieter scenes in-between the big action beats are just as effective as the more overtly exciting stuff. Much of this is thanks to the smart and stirring presence of Yifei Liu, who is a well-known actress and model in China and who makes a convincing bid for international stardom here. Sure, a churl might point out that she looks somewhat older than her character is supposed to be and is perhaps a little too overtly beautiful to completely sell the illusion that everyone is supposed to think that she is a man. However, she nevertheless wins you over with her undeniable screen personality and convincing fighting skills in the way that Zhang Ziyi captivated viewers around the world when they encountered her in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Another testament to her skills as a performer is that she appears in scenes opposite a number of genuine legends of Asian cinema—Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma and Gong Li—and more than holds her own with all of them. Her Mulan is a heroine that older audiences will enjoy and younger ones will absolutely adore—if trick-or-treating was actually going to be a thing this Halloween, my guess is that there would have been a lot of kids out there dressed as her out of sheer admiration.

For the most part, I am still not keen on the idea of Disney raiding their back catalogue of animated classics to serve as the basis for live-actions remakes but “Mulan” shows that such a thing can actually be done well—even better than the original—when placed in the hands of someone who is more interested in making a movie than in essentially filming a deal memo. My biggest regret about the film is that some of the incredible impact that it might have had if it had been presented on the big screen as intended has understandably been lost by premiering instead on the Disney+ streaming service. However, even under those reduced circumstances, the film still works as a highly effective fantasy with a genuinely epic vision—so much so that if Disney decides to give the film its day in theaters once the current pandemic panic has been brought under control, I know that I for one would be eager to go out and watch it in the manner in which it was meant to be seen.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33003&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/03/20 13:52:21
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User Comments

9/15/20 Fo Real Was alright but not as good as the one from 2018 4 stars
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Directed by
  Niki Caro

Written by
  Lauren Hynek
  Rick Jaffa
  Elizabeth Martin
  Amanda Silver

  Yifei Liu
  Donnie Yen
  Jet Li
  Jason Scott Lee
  Li Gong
  Rosalind Chao

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