“Mulan,” the live-action remake of the wildly popular 1998 animated musical, lands somewhere in the middle. Produced with lavish attention to detail, the film’s costumes, landscapes and period-specific design elements burst with color and extravagant scope. Yifei Liu is perfectly cast as the title character, a girl living in Han Dynasty China who disguises herself as a boy to fight northern invaders, throwing herself into the film’s martial arts sequences, trick riding and gravity-defying action with serene confidence and athleticism.
Taking one page from the balletic violence of director John Woo and actor Jet Li (who appears in a cameo as the Chinese emperor), and one page from the crowded, wide-canvas historical epics of Zhang Yimou and Bernardo Bertolucci, “Mulan” is indisputably impressive, taking its young heroine from the busting village of her birth across a rugged countryside, to battlefields and imperial redoubts that director Niki Caro films with sweeping, swooping intensity (as well as the occasional awkward CGI moment and perfunctory edit). But, even at its most spectacular, that doesn’t mean “Mulan” is always fun to watch.
Although there are moments of humor that will be familiar to fans of the first “Mulan,” a crucial character has been dropped, along with the catchy songs: Mushu, the little dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy who personified the classic Disney anthropomorphic sidekick. It could be argued that he had to go in the name of realism, but in the new “Mulan,” Mushu is replaced by even more supernatural (and much less amusing) characters: A Phoenix that flies into Mulan’s vision when she needs strength and inspiration, and a shape-shifting witch named Xianning, played by Li Gong with grim ferocity and a very mean set of raptor-esque talons.
The parable of female empowerment has survived, of course, as have the boys who Mulan befriends when she enlists in the army; Yoson An plays Mulan’s best friend and would-be love interest with convincing surprise when Mulan finally lets down her hair and reveals her true identity. With Mushu out of the picture, it’s down to a goofy enlistee named Cricket (Jun Yu) to provide the laughs with moments of slapstick humor and one-liners.
For the most part, though, the new “Mulan” is a far more sober affair than its predecessor, filled with shadow warriors, dark magic and elaborately ritualized mysticism. Like the recent Netflix hit “The Old Guard,” this is a movie dedicated to the proposition that women can and should be just as bellicose as men: Although just a few drops of visible blood are shed, “Mulan” is very much a war picture, with the near-constant skirmishes, ambushes and showdowns, while meticulously choreographed, beginning to feel longer and more repetitive as the body count piles up.
This probably makes 2020’s “Mulan” more faithful to “The Ballad of Mulan,” a poem that was written in 5th or 6th century China to commemorate a determined girl traveling “ten thousand miles on the business of war” in which “generals die in a hundred battles.” Somber and serious-minded, the live-action “Mulan” is a movie that has grown up alongside its original audience, which is presumably old enough to crave something heavier in its entertainment diet. Little girls might be better off sticking with the cartoon for now; but this opulent, ambitious production and Liu’s focused, intrepid performance at its center, gives them something to grow into.
PG-13. Available to stream on Disney Plus Premier Access. Contains sequences of violence.