Grade: B/B-
Rated PG-13

When it comes to live-action remakes of Disney animated films, there are two types of people: those who want a near-exact copy of the original, and those willing to accept the live-action version as a completely new work of art and entertainment. And people who expect Disney to remain faithful to the 1998 original aren’t loving this 2020 remake of Mulan: Where are the songs? Where’s Mushu? Where’s the cricket? Where’s Shang? And what the heck is a witch doing in this story?

Yeah, about that: Disney opted to go the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon route, with an emphasis on mysticism and the fantastic in a film that showcases martial arts action sequences, along with a heaping portion of qi. It’s not exactly new territory for them. Disney-owned Miramax rolled out Hero in 2002 just two years after Crouching Tiger changed the landscape for martial arts movies. As in Hero, the fight sequences in Mulan 2020 are gravity-defying and poetic in their movement and choreography, even if the fights themselves aren’t quite as spectacular as those you encounter in some of the best martial arts films. Which is to say, überfans of martial arts flicks aren’t loving this film so much either, because Disney likes to steer the ship right down the middle, aiming always for a general audience. The sequences are less violent and bloody so the film could earn a PG-13 rating.

The live-action villain, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) may not be as deliciously villainous as Shan Yu from the animated version, but his witch cohort, Xianniang (Gong Li), is menacing enough for both of them. She’s also a shape shifter who can break apart and reassemble into hundreds of bat-like flying creatures. The live-action Mulan (Yifei Liu) doesn’t have any cutesy animal companions, and there’s less suggestion of attraction between her and the Commander (Donnie Yen) than there was in the animated version. Otherwise, the plot remains essentially the same. When invaders threaten China, the Emperor decrees that every family should send one man to fight to save the empire. Poor old Hua Zhou, a military hero in previous wars, can’t even accept his orders without falling. So naturally his feisty daughter Mulan decides to take his place and leaves in the dead of night with his armor, his sword, and his mount. If she’s discovered, she’ll be put to death for not recognizing her place as a woman.

Mulan 2020 is directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and the film’s feminist themes come across even more forcefully than they did in the animated version. Young Mulan is already a warrior-woman in the making when we first see her as a child fearlessly chasing a chicken across rooftops (chickens on the roof?) and using a staff with the prowess of former martial arts star Jet Li, who plays the Emperor of China in this version. Though the live-action Mulan has to endure the same embarrassing encounters with a matchmaker, at least her father acknowledges the warrior and qi (life force) within her. So off she goes—without his knowledge or blessing and without the comedic talking dragon and cricket—to train with other draftees and eventually fight the invaders.

The director said at a press conference, “I wanted to honor [the original film] by bringing through sequences that felt iconic, like the matchmaker sequence and the avalanche. That wasn’t in the script when I came onboard, so I brought it back because I felt like that was a way we could really flex our cinematic muscles and visual effects into a really spectacular avalanche. . . . What I love about Mulan is how super smart and strategic she is, so we spent quite a bit of time, as we were figuring out the avalanche sequence, figuring out how she would make it happen.”

Mulan did well at the box office in China but was criticized by the state-run newspaper Global Times for its “misunderstanding of Chinese culture.” The costumes and makeup were slammed for not being authentic, while the architecture was identified as southern whereas Mulan came from the north. The filmmakers also depicted qi as a power that only males should have, when in China there isn’t that distinction. All that is worth noting.

But our family agreed that Mulan 2020 wasn’t deserving of the bad ratings it’s received in the States. We parents thought it merited a B, while our college-age children put it in the B-/C+ range. We all appreciated the location filming and sumptuous sets that made it visually pleasurable to watch, just as we collectively admired the action sequences. Liu also projected a strong female character, even if her looks and voice seemed more unconvincingly “male” in live-action than her character was in animation. Our daughter downgraded the film not because of that, but because it lacked the musical, romantic, and comedic elements from the original; our son knocked it down a few notches because what seemed believable in animation—that Mulan was able to defeat an army of invaders singlehandedly—was less convincing in live action. He’s got a point. While the action sequences were decent, the logistics of the threat and final confrontation seemed rushed and the outcome a little too facile to withstand scrutiny. It’s the kind of film you just have to accept, like a summer blockbuster, and roll with it. Besides, given the state of affairs these days, how can you not like a film that promotes loyalty, bravery, truthfulness, and family?

Entire family: No (might be a little intense for little ones)
Run time: 115 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence

Language: 0/10—Absolutely nothing

Sex: 1/10—Mulan’s bare back is shown as she’s discovered bathing at night in the river

Violence: 5/10—Men die in battle but there are no graphic shots and little blood; corpses are shown on the battlefield and other deaths are implied

Adult situations: 2/10—No drugs, no drinking, no smoking

Takeaway: Disney has decided that live-action remakes will be a big part of their future, so you might as well embrace the inevitable creative liberties that directors will take with the already scheduled Cruella (2021) and announced upcoming live-action versions of The Little Mermaid, The Sword in the Stone, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Tink, Lilo & Stitch, and Genies