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"MULAN"
(2020) (Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Action: A young woman poses as a man to join the Imperial Chinese army and help repel enemy invaders.
PLOT:

Long ago in imperial China, Hua Mulan (YIFEI LIU) is a young woman living with her parents, Zhou (TZI MA) and Li (ROSALIND CHAO), and her sister, Xiu (XANA TANG). Unlike others of her gender, Mulan is quite proficient in martial arts and has a strong "chi" presence, something not lost on her war hero father who nonetheless knows there's no future for her with that and the only honorable thing for her to do is allow a matchmaker to find her a husband.

That gets interrupted when word arrives that Böri Khan (JASON SCOTT LEE), the fearsome leader of Rouran invaders, has been attacking garrisons along the Silk Road and, with the help of the powerful witch Xianniang (GONG LI), is preparing to attack the Imperial City.

Getting word of this, the Emperor (JET LI) orders that all families offer up one male member to join the army and repel the invaders. With no sons and despite his age and a bad leg, Zhou prepares to represent his family. But Mulan sneaks off at night, taking his sword, armor, and conscription papers to join the army under the male identity of Hua Jun.

She ends up fooling Commander Tung (DONNIE YEN), other trainers, and fellow recruits such as Honghui (YOSON AN) as she trains and proves her mettle. But with Khan's forces drawing closer, Mulan wonders if she'll be able to keep her gender secret, especially once they get into battle with the invaders.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

Despite Ethel Merman long ago singing "There's no business like show business like no business I know" many people forget that the world of moviemaking is indeed a business where a profit needs to be turned year in and year out. And while I'd prefer to see new products rather than repurposed offerings, I completely understand the desire to squeeze every bit of money from every intellectual property you own.

And no one does that better than the Mouse House, a.k.a. Disney that's been on a tear recently releasing live-action versions of their classic animated fare. Heck, in the past five years alone, they've released nine such films, some of which have been tapping into their famed animated musicals such as "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" (the latter technically not live-action, but it so closely resembled the real thing that it might as well be considered that).

With their latest such adaptation, however, the powers that be decided to drop the singing and comedic sidekick characters, a move that might not sit well with diehard fans, but one I believe that actually works to the film's benefit. The result is the straight-up dramatic action movie "Mulan," based on the animated musical of the same name from back in 1998.

To be completely honest, I think I only saw the original film once, and while I sort of remember Eddie Murphy voicing the sidekick dragon Mushu, for a million dollars I couldn't name let alone hum a few bars from any of the songs. That's unlike the other aforementioned musicals.

In any event and with the dragon character now relegated to a small phoenix that's occasionally seen flying along as a reminder to the title character about keeping the faith in her mission, the film plays out in a serious manner, albeit with some gravity-defying acrobatic action moments inspired by similar material found in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

With both films based on the ages-old "Ballad of Mulan," the plots are obviously quite similar. Here, Liu Yifei winningly stars as Mulan, a young woman who possesses great physical agility and a warrior's spirit but is informed by her war hero father (Tzi Ma) that such abilities and behavior must be put away for good. In their place, and to honor her family, she should play the traditional, subservient young woman part and get hitched via the work of a matchmaker.

But she has no intention of singing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a match, Find me a find, Catch me a catch" because, well, this isn't a musical. And there's no time for fiddling around, so to speak, what with the country being invaded by hostile forces led by Böri Khan (an unrecognizable Jason Scott Lee who made quite the impression long ago playing the title character in "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" before essentially disappearing from the Hollywood scene) and his right-hand witch, Xianniang (Gong Li).

The Emperor (Jet Li, also unrecognizable) has ordered that all families offer up a male to join the Imperial army, something Zhou realizes he must do despite his age and a bad leg, what with having a wife and two daughters. Wanting to protect him and not terribly excited by the prospect of getting hitched and playing domestic, Mulan sneaks off in the middle of the night with his battle sword, armor, and new conscription papers.

She plans to join the army pretending to be a young man, and for a while she gets away with that, fooling the likes of fellow recruit Honghui (Yoson An) and their commanding officer (Donnie Yen), but she's fully aware that her gender reveal is just one potential misstep away.

Notwithstanding the subterfuge, the film and its protagonist should be great inspiration for young girls who usually don't have great movie role models and often are limited and pigeonholed simply due to their gender and societal expectations from others, just like the title character.

Overall, the movie -- directed by Niki Caro from a screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Elizabeth Martin & Lauren Hynek -- works quite well, with good performances, decent action sequences, and absolutely gorgeous cinematography (all of which was intended to be seen on the big screen before the pandemic forced this offering, at least in the U.S. and some other markets, onto Disney's online streaming service).

Thankful for the omission of moments of breaking into song along with the sidekick characters, I enjoyed and was entertained by this offering from start to finish. I imagine many impressionable young girls will be similarly entranced. "Mulan" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed August 30, 2020 / Posted September 4, 2020


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