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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this version of Mulan isn't like Disney's nearly scene-for-scene live-action musical remakes of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. Directed by Niki Caro and featuring an ethnically Chinese cast, it's an epic martial arts retelling of the original ancient Chinese "Ballad of Mulan." It's much more serious and intense than the animated movie, with fewer gender-bending jokes and no songs or wise-cracking dragon (sorry, Mushu fans). It's also more violent, with both large-scale and one-on-one battle sequences that leave people dead and injured, and a few close calls when main characters seem on the verge of death. Weapons include swords, bows and arrows, knives, and flaming projectiles shot from a catapult (yes, the avalanche scene is still here). Romance is limited to a few lingering looks and one meaningful but brief touching of hands. Mulan (Yifei Liu) strips down to take a bath in a river, showing her bare shoulders and part of her back. Her fellow soldier, a man, is shown shirtless. Fans of the 1998 version should keep their eyes and ears open for several Easter eggs, including a cameo by the original voice of Mulan, Ming-Na Wen. The themes of honor, honesty, and devotion to family and country and the challenging of gender stereotypes will give families plenty to talk about after watching Mulan together.
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What's the story?
Disney's live-action MULAN is a dramatic retelling of the original ancient Chinese ballad, not a shot-for-shot musical remake like the studio's other reboots. The film opens in a small village, where a young Hua Mulan (Crystal Rao) causes trouble by doing acrobatics to chase after a chicken, alarming her mother (Rosalind Chao), who doesn't want to see her "acting like a boy." Mulan's father, Zhou (Tzi Ma), tells her that he has indulged her and that she must hide her chi/warrior spirit. Years later, after a matchmaking appointment goes awry, all hope seems lost for the now adolescent Mulan (Yifei Liu). But then Imperial Army scouts ride into the village and demand one male conscript from each family to fight the Rouran Huns, who are led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the warrior witch Xianniang (Gong Li). Without any sons, Zhou -- a proud but wounded war hero --volunteers, but Mulan decides to save him by taking her father's armor and family sword and pretending to be a young man. Under Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), the disguised Mulan (who binds her breasts and puts up her hair) and the rest of her regiment train to save the emperor's (Jet Li) kingdom from the invaders.
Is it any good?
Powerful performances and intense battle sequences make this retelling of Mulan a more mature adaptation, stressing the story's themes of female empowerment and family devotion. Although New Zealander director Niki Caro isn't of Chinese descent, she's spent much of her career focusing on women's stories (Whale Rider, Zookeeper's Wife, North Country), so Mulan fits in with her filmography of strong female characters overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And kudos to the filmmakers for making sure there was no white-washing in the cast; the ensemble is made up of internationally renowned ethnically Chinese actors from mainland China, Hong Kong, the United States, and New Zealand (where, along with China, the movie was filmed). As with all of her movies, Caro highlights in Mulan the way that women have always had to fight to be taken seriously or to be considered as capable as men. Liu is well cast as the young warrior woman in the making who wants, more than anything, to make her father proud.
Fans of the original should know that this isn't a musical (though instrumental bits of the animated movie's soundtrack do show up in the score), and there's no wise-cracking talking dragon sidekick. But there are plenty of small callbacks to the earlier film, from the jade comb Mulan wears to the matchmaker's to the lucky Cri-Kee, here transformed into a human character named Cricket who's still quite lucky. Even Mulan's original voice, Ming-Na Wen, gets a cameo. There are plenty more, but it's fun to discover them while you watch. It may be hard for the character's youngest fans, but this version really isn't for really little kids. It has lots of potentially disturbing action violence, as well as a few scenes in which it looks like beloved characters are injured or near death. There's not a ton of humor in this version, although there are a couple of funny scenes, like Mulan's disastrous introduction to her potential match's mother and, later, a silly conversation between a disguised Mulan and her fellow soldiers about "what a man wants." A new witch character, Xianniang (expertly played by Gong Li) is frightening but also fascinating and unabashedly feminist. And this movie makes Mulan's love interest a peer, rather than her commanding officer, which is a healthier power dynamic. Ultimately, those looking for their favorite movie in live-action form will need to reset their expectations. But audiences open to a more intense retelling will appreciate this adaptation for what it is: an intense tale of a young woman busting gender stereotypes to lead men in battle and bring honor to her family, village, and empire.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violence in Mulan. Do you think it's necessary to the story? How does live-action violence impact viewers differently than animated violence?
Do you consider Mulan a role model? Why is it notable when a female character, especially one of color, is the main character of a major movie? What are the story's messages about feminism?
Why is it significant that the cast is composed of ethnically Chinese actors? How does that compare to the casting of Disney's original version? Why is representation important in the media?
How does the live-action version compare to the animated one? Why do you think certain changes were made? Do you think audiences should consider it a remake?
- On DVD or streaming: September 4, 2020
- Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jason Scott Lee
- Director: Niki Caro
- Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Sports and Martial Arts, Great Girl Role Models, History, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character strengths: Courage, Humility, Integrity, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 115 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: sequences of violence
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: September 13, 2020
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