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Review: Sumptuously reimagined Mulan turns Disney princess into a true warrior

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-eFm–k21c?start=0&wmode=transparent&w=980&h=550]
Liu Yifei stars as Hua Mulan in Disney's live action remake of Mulan.

I'm on record as not being a huge fan of Disney's live-action remakes, but Mulan, the studio's live-action remake of the 1998 animated film, is a welcome exception to that personal sentiment. This isn't just a lazy frame-by-frame copy cat of the original (looking at you, live action The Lion King). Part historical drama and part superhero origin story, it's an inventive re-imagining that owes as much to the Chinese source material as to its animated predecessor, transforming the character from a feisty tomboyish Disney princess into a fierce true warrior.

(Some spoilers below the gallery.)

As I've noted previously, both films are based on the Chinese legend "The Ballad of Hua Mulan," which tells the story of a young woman in the Northern Wei era (spanning 386-536 CE) who takes her father's place when each family is required to provide one male to serve in the emperor's army. In this version, Hua Mulan is already a well-trained fighter, and she serves for 12 years, although the ballad skips over the details of her military exploits. When she finally returns home, she removes her uniform and meets her war comrades as a woman, who express astonishment that they had never suspected. Mulan explains that if you just see a rabbit in a field, you can't tell whether it's male or female.

Disney's animated film broadly followed the traditional storyline, except Mulan is not well-trained when she first runs away. The film also added a love interest, a lucky cricket, a goofy dragon representative of the family ancestors named Mushu (hilariously voiced by Eddie Murphy), and a catchy original soundtrack. Mulan was released to critical acclaim, grossing $304 million worldwide and earning Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. (It should be noted, however, that Chinese audiences didn't much care for Disney's vision, dismissing it as too Westernized. It only grossed $1.3 million in that region.)

This new live-action version, directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), also preserves the traditional storyline, although it eschews the goofy, family-friendly humor and musical numbers in favor of a more serious tone. While some fans might miss those elements—there's been a lot of hand-wringing over the exclusion of Mushu, for instance, because Chinese audiences really didn't like the character—Caro has skillfully woven in nods to the animated film in her own interpretation of the legend. That includes the songs: their musical phrasing wafts throughout the elegant soundtrack composed by Harry Gregson Williams. Per the official premise:

When the Emperor of China issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders, Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei, The Forbidden Kingdom), the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, steps in to take the place of her ailing father. Masquerading as a man, Hua Jun, she is tested every step of the way and must harness her inner-strength and embrace her true potential. It is an epic journey that will transform her into an honored warrior and earn her the respect of a grateful nation…and a proud father.

  • Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) tries to be the perfect woman. Disney
  • The picture of Chinese womanhood, at least on the surface. YouTube/Disney
  • She just doesn't have a knack for traditional skills. YouTube/Disney
  • There are other ways to espouse the virtue of graceful elegance. YouTube/Disney
  • Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) seeks to avenge his father's death. YouTube/Disney
  • Böri Khan with his witchy sidekick Xian Lang (Gong Li). YouTube/Disney
  • Jet Li plays the emperor. YouTube/Disney
  • Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), Mulan's father, has no sons and offers himself to serve once more in the emperor's army. YouTube/Disney
  • Mulan, her mother Hua Li (Rosalind Chao), and sister Hua Xiu (Xana Tang) are dismayed. YouTube/Disney
  • Mulan rides off to take her father's place. YouTube/Disney
  • Training up new recruits to defend the emperor and China. YouTube/Disney
  • A show of manliness. YouTube/Disney
  • Hua Zhou prays to the family ancestors to keep his daughter safe. YouTube/Disney
  • The Northern army attacks. YouTube/Disney
  • Xian Lang is a fierce fighter in her own right. YouTube/Disney
  • Game face: on. YouTube/Disney
  • Mulan takes aim. YouTube/Disney
  • The two armies prepare to do battle. YouTube/Disney
  • Xian Lang parries Mulan's sword. YouTube/Disney
  • Mulan has come into her own, as a warrior and a woman. YouTube/Disney

The film starts off slowly, lingering over every exquisitely realized detail. Frankly, the script lays on the shaming of Mulan for not being womanly enough pretty thick in the earliest scenes. (We get it, ancient China was a big-time patriarchy.) But this awkwardness fades, and quite quickly. The cinematography, stunt work, and costume design are breathtaking, and Caro teases out powerful performances from her actors, which include some well-known names in Asian cinema.

Caro has incorporated several classic scenes from the 1998 film: Mulan chasing a rogue chicken into the family temple, creating havoc; the disastrous meeting with a matchmaker; an army training montage; the interruption of Mulan's midnight bathing while hiding her identity; and Mulan setting off an avalanche to defeat Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee, The Jungle Book) and his invading Roaran warriors. These are not slavish recreations; Caro has added her own touch to the scenes, slightly tweaking some, while others are more significantly altered.

"Qi is for boys"

Perhaps the biggest difference from the 1998 version is that this Mulan isn't just your average tomboy from a rural village. She has a super power: Read More – Source