The most empowered Disney heroine of all has returned. Here is a rousing and forthright live-action remake of the 1998 Disney animation with a blue-chip cast, all about the female warrior in 4th-century China who disguises herself as a man and joins the army to fight an invasion threat against the emperor. The result is an entertaining if straightforwardly glossy action-adventure from the Disney workshop.
Liu Yifei plays Mulan, a young woman from a small village, whose parents are fondly indulgent of her unladylike energy but secretly plan to get her married off. There is a nice performance from the veteran Chinese-American character actor Tzi Ma as Zhou, Mulan’s gentle, kindly father, who is himself an old soldier, still nursing a painful leg injury incurred in battle. But out in the wider world, storm clouds are gathering. Rebellious warrior Böri Khan, played with pantomime ferocity by Jason Scott Lee, is leading an attack on the emperor – a suitably stately performance from Jet Li – in revenge for the emperor killing his father. His small outlaw band gets supernatural help from Xianniang, played by Gong Li, a woman with witch-like magic powers.
All families must provide one man to fight, and Zhou, with no sons but determined to do his duty, limps grimly forward to offer himself when the recruiting officer arrives. It is actually a rather powerful moment in the 1998 animation: slightly less so here. But Mulan steals his uniform, sword and horse and rides off to volunteer in his stead, disguised as a boy, intensely uncomfortable in the men’s garrison with semi-unclothed guys boisterously fooling around flicking towels at each other etc, and forever volunteering for guard duty rather than take a shower with the rest – a sort of 4th-century inversion of Some Like It Hot. But Mulan astonishes Commander Tung (played with characteristic poise by Donnie Yen) with her amazing warrior skills in training. She also has an ambiguous, meet-cute-type bromance-romance rivalry with fellow soldier Honghui (Yoson An).
This new Mulan places a 21st-century emphasis on the parallels between Mulan and Xianniang. They are polar opposites, but both are women who have infiltrated a man’s world; both must use shapeshifting subterfuge to assert themselves, both in battle against the enemy and also to fit in with their comrades. Finally, there are to be encounters and significant dialogue scenes between Mulan and Xianniang, who have more in common than either of them supposed, even in the drama’s biblical temptation-in-the-desert scene, when Xianniang attempts to seduce Mulan to the ways of evil in the vast wilderness of her exile.
The battle scenes are very well managed, as watchable and exciting as anything else in the film, although for me the sheen of CGI illusion in the spectacle reduces its visceral power. And what about the ambiguously romantic and even sexual charge in Mulan’s disguise? This movie adroitly sidesteps any real-world discomfort on this score, presenting it as a matter of hilarious family movie embarrassment. There is one comic moment when Commander Tung reveals to Mulan that he knew her father as a young man and now wishes her to marry his own daughter. “I look forward to seeing your father’s face when he hears the news!” he chortles.
The crunch comes when Mulan has to take a moonlit bathe in a lake away from the guys in the middle of the night and – wouldn’t you know it – the handsome Honghui shows up, sees Mulan up to her neck in the water, and strips off to join what he still supposes to be his male pal. Surely, we wonder, Mulan can’t avoid revealing herself? But with narrative and editing sleight-of-hand, the imposture is maintained. And so the story continues, as Mulan is to earn everyone’s respect, even being awarded an “I’m Spartacus” moment as all of her fellow soldiers declare their admiration for her. An enjoyable piece of machine-tooled entertainment – though the envelope is not exactly pushed.
• Mulan is on Disney+ from 4 September.