by Hope Madden
The first tale of Mulan—a story that’s has been told and retold for centuries—dates to an epic poem written more than 1500 years ago in China. Back in 1998, Disney made its first attempt to capitalize on the girl power message of the daughter who hides her identity to take her father’s place in battle.
As part of the company’s live action re-imaginings of those old animated films, Mulan comes back today.
Yifei Liu plays the young warrior in a version that takes its material seriously. Don’t expect a wisecracking little dragon this go-round. With the PG-13 rating and the multiple and violent battle sequences, this one wasn’t made with the youngest fans in mind.
Director Niki Caro is not Asian, which makes her an unusual and potentially inappropriate choice to helm a story so entrenched in Chinese folklore. She hasn’t made as impressive a film as Mulan since her 2002 coming of age tale, Whale Rider, and it is no doubt on that film’s account that the New Zealander got the call from Disney.
She certainly does justice to the message of empowerment, as expected. What you might not expect given her previous films is her virtuosity in filming beautiful, elegant and eye-popping action.
The fight choreography is wonderous, as are the gorgeous vistas. Caro’s Mulan is a spectacle and it’s too bad it won’t be shared across big screens.
There’s a simplicity to the storyline that allows Caro and her cast to create wonder with the visuals, and Liu’s earnest portrayal suits that aim. The screenplay remains true to the folktale’s message in spots where ’98 animated version betrayed its more conventional view of female power.
There are no songs and dances here, but there is magic nonetheless.