Review: No singing, more sword-swinging in Disney’s new and improved live-action ‘Mulan’

There is no cute cartoon dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy nor a flurry of showtunes in Disney’s new live-action “Mulan.” And nixing those was the right choice on the road to revamping the 1998 animated movie as a more mature, visually stunning and action-packed vehicle for its title warrior.

Finally arriving on Disney+ (as a $30 premium add-on) after several theatrical delays amid the pandemic, director Niki Caro’s “Mulan” (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; streaming Friday) is one of the best recent remakes of the Disney catalog, leaning into a massive all-Asian cast (including a breakthrough starring role for Yifei Liu) and creating an empowerment story out of the original ancient Chinese folktale. While it’s definitely a different experience than its predecessor, and maybe not for all little ones, you can’t knock its fantasy style or inspiring adventure.

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The story, set in ancient China, introduces Hua Mulan as a rambunctious young girl who exhibits crazy athletic moves and a fearlessness that worries her family. Mom (Rosalind Chao) is afraid she’ll be labeled a witch, and her dad (Tzi Ma) reminds of her place in an old-school misogynistic society: “Your chi is strong, Mulan, but chi is for warriors, not daughters,” he says of the magical energy that Mulan’s got in loads.

Years later, the empire is being attacked piecemeal by Rouran invaders and their vengeful leader, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). To rouse enough troops to crush them, the Chinese emperor (Jet Li) makes a decree that one man from every family will be conscripted into the Imperial Army. Mulan’s father is not the strong-bodied man he was as a war hero, stumbling in front of officers as he volunteers, so in the early morning when he’s supposed to report for duty, Mulan (Liu) takes his armor and family sword and takes his place.

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“Mulan” really hits its stride when the heroine is thrown into military training, passing herself off as a man so she can fight and bring honor to her family. She initially hides her abilities from her commander (Donnie Yen) and peers such as Chen Honghui (Yoson An), a bully who becomes Mulan’s staunchest ally, and even when she starts to strut her considerable stuff, she doesn’t bathe and dresses inconspicuously to hide her gender.

Like the original Disney film, honor, identity and gender roles are major themes of “Mulan” that actually play better here in a flesh-and-blood world. (If you’re missing the previous movie’s tunes, the melody of “Reflection” is woven into the score.) And whereas Mushu the dragon is nowhere to be found, a key addition that does wonders for the narrative is Xian Lang (Gong Li), a witch working for Bori Khan who can possess folks and turn into a hawk. Like Mulan, her chi is out of this world, too, but she turned to the dark side when branded an “other” by men and now wants to recruit Mulan in a sort of Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker dynamic.

Caro’s vision is a sumptuous one, from sprawling landscape to more mystical aspects like the phoenix that visits Mulan, though the visual effects used for her “American Ninja Warrior”-esque feats are somewhat lacking at times. Mass casualties on the battlefield are as family-friendly as possible, yet “Mulan” still might not be suitable for smaller youngsters compared with the original.

The not-so-secret sauce for why this “Mulan” works is Liu, a Chinese actress new to American audiences who sells every bit of her character, from rebellious youngster to conflicted accidental soldier to confident warrior woman. The idea of “I’ll make a man out of you” isn’t sung this time around but forcefully stated, though Liu’s modern take succeeds as an inspirational ballad of being yourself amid a well-crafted win for cinematic representation.

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