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'Mulan' review: Animated favorite returns as grandiose live-action fantasy

Yifei Liu in the title role of Walt

Yifei Liu in the title role of Walt Disney Pictures's "Mulan." Credit: Walt Disney Pictures/Jasin Boland

PLOT In ancient China, a girl risks her life to pose as a man in the Imperial Army.

CAST Yifei Liu, Gong Li, Yoson An

RATED PG-13 (battle scenes and some deaths)

LENGTH 1:55

WHERE Streaming on Disney+ starting Sept. 4.

BOTTOM LINE Disney’s 1998 animated favorite returns as a grandiose live-action fantasy.

The battle of the pandemic-era blockbusters is officially on with the release of “Mulan,” Disney’s live-action version of its 1998 animated feature. While Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller “Tenet” will stubbornly play at whatever U.S. theaters are open as of Sept. 3, “Mulan” will come right to your couch Sept. 4 through the Disney+ streaming service (at a $29.99 premium). Both are long-awaited, big-budget spectacles, but “Mulan” may have the edge.

Based on the ancient Chinese legend of a village girl who risks dishonor and death by posing as a male soldier in the Imperial army, “Mulan” has been carefully designed to meet this modern moment. Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), “Mulan” clearly wants to be a female-forward success like “Wonder Woman" and "Captain Marvel." And with its largely Chinese cast, "Mulan" strives to do for Asians what "Black Panther" did for the global Black community. The one drawback: In its determination to uphold so many expectations, “Mulan” has left little room for the charm and humor of the original.

The storyline hasn’t changed much, but Mulan (Yifei Liu) has. She’s no longer a rambunctious misfit who must rise to an occasion, but a born warrior who must hide her near-mystical abilities — in other words, a superhero. Commercially, that’s a smart move by screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (and two others). Her father, played by a moving Tzi Ma, urges her to “hide your chi” — the Force-like power within her.

The writers give Mulan something else that's new: a doppelgänger. Xianniang is a dark sorceress who takes revenge on the patriarchy by invading and manipulating the bodies of men. She's played by Gong Li (“Farewell, My Concubine”) with a wounded fury that at times overshadows Liu's ever-earnest Mulan. In fact, Xianniang possesses such powerful magic that we wonder why she's hanging out with a mere brute like Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), whose goal is to kill the Emperor (Jet Li).

Shot largely in New Zealand and at many locations in China, “Mulan” looks gorgeous: Endless deserts, snowy peaks, labyrinthine palaces, all rendered in bold color by cinematographer Mandy Walker (Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia”). Harry Gregson-Williams adds a stirring score that includes little glimmers of the 1998 musical numbers.

For all that, “Mulan” often feels too weighty for its own good. Mostly what's missing is a sense of humor about Mulan’s gender-swapped predicament. A scene in which Mulan sneaks off to bathe in a river, only to be interrupted by a handsome nude young soldier named Honghui (Yosan An), seems ripe for a bit of fun and frisson. Instead, Caro riddles the scene with tension and fear. What levity there is in this film — a few scenes of Mulan's rambunctious childhood — vanishes early, never to return.

With its empowering message, cinematic scope and a newly thunderous version of “Reflection” from Christina Aguilera, “Mulan” may well resonate with a new generation of viewers. Its roughly 900-year-old hero remains inspirational. As the wise old Emperor said in the original film, “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.”

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