By Leah Greenblatt
September 03, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Disney
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A thousand lifetimes ago, Mulan premiered in Hollywood to great fanfare: plush red carpet, paparazzi, movie stars in glittering gowns. It was March 9, 2020; you know the rest.

Nearly six months later, Disney’s live-action remake of its own 1998 animated hit arrives in a radically different world — and in a format the filmmakers clearly never intended. From the opening sequence, a bravura bird’s-eye swoop through a rural Chinese village, this a story meant to be seen on a big screen.

Alas, best-laid plans. And so it lands this Friday instead on Disney+ under a new kind of streaming model, $30 on top of the channel’s $7 monthly fee; an investment by almost any metric, but one the studio seems to be counting on willing fans to make.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper's Wife), at least, does her best to justify that sticker shock: Mulan is a classic hero(ine)'s tale, exhilarating in its elaborate set pieces and large-scale ambitions even when the smaller human story within it sometimes falls short. But a rare one, too, in offering up a protagonist who is not a princess or a mermaid or a purebred cocker spaniel, but a warrior in the most genuine sense of the word.

For that it has Chinese-American actress Yifei Liu (and Crystal Rao, briefly, in opening scenes) as the girl born bursting with chi, “the boundless energy of life itself.” Too much chi: Her father (The Farewell’s Tzi Ma) is both concerned and secretly delighted by her tomboyish independence , though everyone else — from her mother (Rosalind Chao) to the local matchmaker (Pei-Pei Cheng) — sees only disobedience, and the dishonor her differentness will bring.

Their worst fears are confirmed when the emperor (Jet Li, nearly unrecognizable beneath his grey goatee and piles of royal finery) calls on each family to send one man to the front lines of an impending war, and Mulan absconds in the night, determined to be the soldier son her parents never had.

Her attempts to go undercover are easier to pull off, perhaps, in animation; you’ll have to take it on faith that everyone from her regiment commander (Donnie Yen) to the fellow cadets she eats, sleeps, trains, and bathes with readily accepts her as boy. The bad guys, too, arrive mostly in broad strokes: Jason Scott Lee as Böri Khan, a rebel leader whose winged eyebrows telegraph his villainy, and the great Gong Li as the shape-shifting sorceress with whom he’s formed an uneasy alliance.

The script, by husband-and-wife duo Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Jurassic World) with Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, more or less follows the contours of the original, though it excises all the musical numbers and much of the levity along the way: A clutch of goofball recruits are allotted only a few brief moments of comic relief, and Eddie Murphy’s pocket-size dragon-sidekick Mushu has been replaced by a voiceless CGI phoenix who appears less like a friend and mentor than a sort of lovely, expensive kite.

That bird is a rare intrusion, though, in a film that mostly avoids the scourge of the modern screensaver effect: Caro's camera seems to yearn for the outdoors, swooping regularly through the glorious landscapes of her Chinese and New Zealand locations. The rest it saves for Yifei, who brings a quiet-storm serenity to the title role, tumbling through her battle scenes with balletic grace and deftly anchoring the more personal moments.

Her skills with swords and sticks and arrows don't come without a PG-13 price tag (though the violence is almost entirely, impeccably bloodless). Whether its stronger rating and more somber tone will translate to a home-bound family audience, only time and streaming revenues will tell; in the meantime, Mulan might be the closest thing to a true old-fashioned theater-going experience the end of this strange summer will see. B+

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Mulan (2020 movie)

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