Yifei Liu as “Mulan” in Disney's new live-action remake
Yikes, this is not a kids’ movie.
If you’re a child of the ’90s, you might remember the animated, G-rated version of Disney’s “Mulan,” starring a young heroine (voiced by Ming-Na Wen of “The Joy Luck Club”) and her wisecracking dragon (voiced by Eddie Murphy). It fit the classic Disney formula: princess + funny sidekicks + catchy songs + hunky prince = happy ending.
Disney’s new live-action “Mulan,” released Sept. 4, has none of that.
The terrific feminist storyline remains the same: Mulan disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army. She makes a badass soldier and earns everyone’s respect. Was Mulan a real person? According to the Internet, it’s a legend. According to my mom, who is Chinese, it’s a true story.
In the live-action remake, the cinematography is beautiful, no question. The nature scenes are slow and lyrical, and the battle scenes are, whoa, intense. Soldiers get pierced by spears and arrows right off the bat. Mulan’s 5th Battalion solemnly walks by heaps of armor that was the decimated 4th Battalion. This is heavy stuff.
The old and the new
My family and I watched both versions back to back this weekend, and I found the animated story just as charming as it was the last time I saw it, in 1998. I thought it was culturally important for my boys to know the story of Mulan, I just hadn't realized the new version would be so graphic. (The kids are in kindergarten and fourth grade, and very sheltered.) The animated version covers the same basic story, but it has lighter moments and doesn't show so many people dropping dead.
The new version cuts out the part where Mulan’s captain falls for her: That's not happening in a #metoo era. But what happened to the songs and the comedic relief? We need Mushu! I did find it hilarious that the warrior kept whipping around her long hair in battle, but this humor is unintentional, of course. (Scrunchie much, Mulan?)
What was I expecting? This is a war movie. If you’re okay with your kids watching “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” then this “Mulan” will be fine. If you like kung fu action movies, you’ll like the stunts.
I was expecting a more “Disney-fied” version of the legend. I mean, Disney makes the Grimm brothers’ stories into endearing tales. In this case, they’re not kidding with the PG-13 rating.
My recommendation is this: For elementary school and younger kids, stick with the animated version. Save the live-action version for middle schoolers and older — or for a date night after the kids go to bed.
The movie premiered March 9, but was never released to theaters, thanks to COVID: very unfortunate timing. So “Mulan” has the distinction of being the first blockbuster direct-to-streaming movie release ever.
Disney got a lot of blowback for charging $29.99 to stream the movie, plus another $6.99 a month for a Disney+ subscription. Yes, that’s more than a DVD costs, but it’s less than four movie tickets and snacks. I really enjoyed being able to pause the film whenever I needed to. The movie is 115 minutes long, and my kids don’t have that kind of attention span or bladder stamina. Thirty bucks for the comfort of my home with my own bathroom? Ah, the simple pleasures of life in a pandemic. For us, it was worth it.
As for the movie itself, I really wanted to like the new ”Mulan”. I’m Asian-American, and I really, really want to support a movie with an all-Asian cast (Yifei Liu as Mulan, Jet Li as the Emperor, Gong Li as the witch). We have “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Always Be My Maybe” — and that’s about it. I want this movie to be a huge hit so the big studios will make more movies with Asian actors.
You'd think a Disney movie could skirt controversy, but apparently not. “Mulan” has sparked criticism for its filming location where Uighur Muslims are detained, the star’s apparent support of Hong Kong police and its white crew.
The bottom line
I enjoyed the movie, but it's too much for young kids. Don’t go in expecting cute, singing animals and a romantic happily-ever-after. This is a movie about a warrior, she is fierce and battles are, well, violent. The new “Mulan” is gorier than I’d expected from Disney, but a beautifully made movie celebrating a tough young woman. When we're in the mood for Mulan, I imagine we'll keep tuning in to the old version until my boys are older.
Tip: If you can wait, “Mulan” will be included for all Disney+ subscribers on Dec. 4, without the $30 add-on streaming fee. If that price is holding you back now, mark your calendar.
If you "go"...
Watch: Stream “Mulan” on Disney+, available now.
Cost: $29.99 for the movie, plus $6.99 per month for a Disney+ subscription. (Disney+ subscribers can watch the movie for no fee beyond the subscription price starting Dec. 4.)
Run time: 115 minutes
Age recommendation: The film is rated PG-13. In my view, it's best suited to older tweens and teens.