Dis­ney daz­zles again with live-ac­tion ‘Mu­lan’ re­make

Daz­zling Dis­ney film based on Chi­nese leg­end comes to life with fly­ing col­ors

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD ROEPER,

Beau­ti­ful.

Even on the small screen.

Yes, it’s a shame that Amer­i­can au­di­ences won’t be able to see Niki Caro’s spec­tac­u­lar live-ac­tion epic “Mu­lan” in the­aters, but the good news is this is such a great-look­ing film, with amaz­ing set pieces and daz­zling ac­tion and col­ors so vi­brant they would daz­zle a Cray­ola fac­tory, it will still play well on your home mon­i­tor. There are so many gor­geous shades of or­ange and ma­genta, blue and yel­low, it’s as if we’re see­ing these col­ors for the first time.

While the 2020 ver­sion of “Mu­lan” ad­heres to many of the ele­men­tal plot points of Dis­ney’s 1998 an­i­mated hit (which is based on the Chi­nese leg­end of Hua Mu­lan), there are no mu­si­cal num­bers and there’s no wise­crack­ing dragon side­kick, and the film earns its PG-13 rat­ing through the re­al­is­tic al­beit styl­ized vi­o­lence se­quences.

“Mu­lan” is set in an un­spec­i­fied fan­tas­ti­cal/his­tor­i­cal pe­riod in China many cen­turies ago, with var­i­ous tem­po­ral ref­er­ences from dif­fer­ent eras. The open­ing is set pri­mar­ily within a bustling, rounded-hous­ing com­mu­nity, aka Fu­jian tu­lou, where a young Mu­lan (Crys­tal Rao, ab­so­lutely de­light­ful) is a rules­bend­ing free spirit who is al­ways get­ting into trou­ble, as ev­i­denced by a fran­tic comedic se­quence in which she chases a chicken ev­ery which way and that, at one point wind­ing up on the roof thanks to her prodigious if un­trained chi, or life force/en­ergy flow.

Mu­lan’s mother, Hua Li (the won­der­ful Ros­alind Chao), is mor­ti­fied by Mu­lan’s wild ways. Mu­lan is near­ing the age when she will be matched up for mar­riage, and Hua Li frets that the town match­maker won’t be able to find any­one for such an undis­ci­plined and non­tra­di­tional girl. Mu­lan’s fa­ther, Hua Zhou (the ex­cel­lent vet­eran char­ac­ter ac­tor Tzi Ma), a leg­endary war hero, can’t help but beam with pride over “the bound­less en­ergy of life it­self speak­ing through her ev­ery mo­tion,” but when Mu­lan is a lit­tle bit older (and now played by Yifei Liu), he tells her, “Your chi is strong, Mu­lan, but chi is for war­riors, not daugh­ters.”

This is no idle chat­ter. The em­pire is un­der siege from the re­venge-minded Rouran war­rior Bori Khan (Ja­son Scott Lee), who has struck a devil’s bar­gain with the shapeshift­ing and quite evil witch Xian Lang (Gong Li) and has amassed a mob of blood­thirsty fac­tions who have in­vaded China. The Em­peror (Jet Li) or­ders con­scrip­tion no­tices de­cree­ing one man from ev­ery fam­ily to join the Chi­nese army — but the only male in Mu­lan’s fam­ily is her no­ble but ag­ing and dis­abled fa­ther, who will surely be killed if he joins the bat­tle. (In this ver­sion of the tale, Mu­lan has a lit­tle sis­ter, Hua Xiu, played by Xana Tang.)

You know what hap­pens next. Mu­lan takes her fa­ther’s old ar­mor and the fam­ily’s legacy sword, dis­guises her­self as a man and en­lists in the army. Cue the oblig­a­tory train­ing se­quences, with Mu­lan go­ing to great lengths to hide her iden­tity (there’s a run­ning joke about her smelling aw­ful be­cause of course she can­not bathe with her fel­low trainees). The high­light of this sec­tion is an ex­tended face­off be­tween Mu­lan and the dash­ing Chen Honghui (Yo­son An), who is widely re­garded as the top fighter in the bat­tal­ion un­til Mu­lan can no longer dis­guise her mag­nif­i­cent skills.

There are mo­ments when “Mu­lan” is like the “Toot­sie” of a thou­sand years ago, e.g., Chen Honghui think­ing he’s talk­ing to his new lit­tle buddy, when of course it’s Mu­lan, who has taken a lik­ing to him:

“How do you even talk to a woman?” “Just talk to her like you’re talk­ing to me now.”

“I wish it was that easy. What if she doesn’t like me?”

“She will. I mean, I think she will.” With an ap­pro­pri­ately rous­ing epic movie score ac­com­pa­ny­ing the ac­tion, “Mu­lan” takes us through bright green bam­boo forests through snow-cov­ered moun­tains to hori­zon-span­ning canyons. The in­te­ri­ors are just as im­pres­sive, e.g., when we’re in the em­per­ors’ palace in the Im­pe­rial City. And the cos­tumes! Whether you’re in the Chi­nese army or you’re a black-clad hench­man for Bori Khan or a hum­ble vil­lager or the em­peror, not to men­tion our hero Mu­lan, you are sport­ing some se­ri­ously badass, stun­ningly co­or­di­nated out­fits. These folks are fight­ing for their lives with STYLE.

Di­rec­tor Caro knows how to stage elab­o­rate ac­tion se­quences, and she is equally adept at light com­edy and the heav­ier dra­matic mo­ments. For all its re­al­ism, “Mu­lan” also has some fan­tas­tic mag­i­cal el­e­ments, from Xian Lang’s sor­cery to the soar­ing phoenix that oc­ca­sion­ally ap­pears to the ti­tle char­ac­ter to Mu­lan’s “wire-fu” fight­ing style. The in­ter­na­tional cast is noth­ing short of great, led by Yifei Liu’s movie star turn as a bound­aries-shat­ter­ing, stereo­type-de­fy­ing hero-war­rior for her time and for ours.

MOVIE COLUM­NIST

RICHARD ROEPER

A venge­ful war­rior (Ja­son Scott Lee, left) teams up with a shapeshift­ing witch (Gong Li) to in­vade China.

Mu­lan (above and cen­ter at left) dis­guises her­self as a man to join the Chi­nese army.

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