Walt Disney Pictures
Yifei Liu in Mulan
Perhaps only once the closing credits begin to roll in the live-action telling of Mulan
does it really come into focus what this story means. As Cristina Aguilera belts the new theme song “Loyal Brave True,” those credits begin to unfold with a stylized flourish of unfurling banners, and our narrative’s heroine, Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), wielding her sword. It evokes nothing so much as a vintage James Bond credits sequence, except that instead of a white guy, the person saving the day is an Asian woman. And instead of her main adversary being someone with a plan for world domination, that adversary is actually an idea: that she has the right to expect that she could ever save the day.
The legendary tale of Mulan in all its forms—including the 1998 Disney animated version—is easy to parse as a trans narrative, and there’s plenty of cause for that still to be true. Yet that truth doesn’t prevent this Mulan
from reaching at another truth, even as it proves satisfying as a simple adventure. It dives head-first into the question of who gets to believe they can be at the heroic center of a story, rather than an extra.
Unlike many other recent live-action Disney films that attempt to track way too closely to an earlier animated counterpart, this Mulan
bears a resemblance to the 1998 Mulan
almost exclusively in using the same source material. When imperial China is threatened by an invading army led by a revenge-seeking chieftain (Jason Scott Lee), every family is required to send one male to fight. And while Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma) is crippled by wounds suffered in previous battle, he has no sons, and therefore must fight himself—except that Mulan, her latent warrior skills at odds with the expectations of her gender, decides to disguise herself as a boy and heads off to join the army.
That story unfolds without cartoon slapstick, without any wise-cracking dragon and without musical numbers (though “Reflection” appears as both an instrumental cue and a closing credits number)—simply as an epic historical drama. Director Niki Caro has never quite worked on this scale before, but she appears quite comfortable with the gravity-defying wuxia-tinged fight sequences, as well as with the low-key character moments. While the battles themselves might be a bit too violent for this to be considered a kid-friendly film, Mulan
certainly moves at a pace that rarely flags, and with a scope that makes a smaller home-viewing presentation feel like a loss.
The center, however, is Mulan herself, and while her occasionally-comedic perils of being discovered as a woman certainly appear—including an interrupted late-night bath familiar from the animated version—this script is entirely about taking the chance of exposing your true self to a world that might not be ready to see it. This screenplay’s most significant addition is a mysterious witch (Gong Li) working to aid the invading army, herself an outcast because she possesses a power that frightens men. It works a bit too obviously as a parallel construction—you can almost smell it coming that there will be an exchange where the witch tells Mulan, “We’re the same,” and Mulan insists, “We’re not”—yet it’s also a potent recognition that it can damage a person’s psyche when they are forced to bury the essence of their selves for other people’s comfort.
Disney has taken a chance on a premium-cost Disney+ release for Mulan
, banking on the idea that families will consider it a bargain to sit everyone down together to experience it. While the appropriate PG-13 rating makes that a bit of a gamble, there’s a message here that viewers of any age could stand to hear. Mulan is about a father saying “yes” to the entirety of his child, even if it runs counter to his initial expectations; it’s about a person saying “yes” to the entirety of herself, because it’s the only way for a happy ending. And as a film, it’s about showing that even if heroism demands being true to yourself, there’s not just one way for that self to look, or act, or be.
Available Sept. 4 via Disney+ premium purchase.