I watched “Mulan” on my laptop — and that statement is as good a way as any to sum up the disappointments of this movie season. Because this tale of a girl warrior in ancient China should be in theaters; it’s sweeping, it’s often gorgeous and its action sequences are great fun. I watched wishing they were bigger: not flat-screen TV bigger, but moviehouse bigger. Disney decided, after multiple delays of the film during this pandemic-plagued summer, to release it to the home market, and presumably this decision made sense for them on some level. Just not artistically. This “Mulan” was made to be seen larger than life — it cost a fortune to make, and that fortune shows — and at home it feels a little cramped, like it’s bursting to escape its confines.
Ah well. Let’s, instead, enumerate the virtues of this film, of which there are many. Directed by Niki Caro (who’s done lovely work with girl warriors before, in “Whale Rider”), this “Mulan” isn’t exactly a remake of the 1998 animated film. The songs are gone, it’s less comedic — the chatty dragon Mushu doesn’t appear here — and, with its PG-13 rating for war violence, aimed at a slightly older audience. And while it’s still unmistakably a Disney film, with its uncomplicated character arcs and picture-prettiness, it’s also at its core a moving story of a young woman finding her strength.
After a brief, charming prologue in which a young Mulan chases a chicken across the rooftops of her family’s village, we move forward a few years: Mulan (Yifei Liu) is now old enough to be attending (ill-fated) meetings with the local matchmaker, but her inner warrior tells her that this will not be her fate. When the emperor decrees that every family must send a man to serve in the Imperial Army, Mulan steals the sword and armor belonging to her father (Tzi Ma), an injured veteran of previous combat, and runs away to join the military. There she must battle both the angry Northern warrior Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and a shape-shifting female villain, Xianniang (Gong Li), all the while making sure no one guesses her true identity.
Caro, aided by cinematographer Mandy Walker and designers Grant Major (production) and Bina Daigeler (costumes), creates a world around Mulan that’s often stunningly beautiful: the soft red glow of the lanterns in the village; the flock of arrows soaring like birds above a battle; the candy-pink and orange tail feathers of a mysterious phoenix; the furling silk of Xianniang’s sleeves, which she uses to ensnare victims. And in Liu, who has the strength and grace of a dancer (watch this fighter as she runs up a wall, or balances on a bamboo scaffold), she’s found an appealing, endearing heroine — one empowered by the sight of her own face, reflected in her father’s shining sword. It’s a performance that deserves a bigger playground — but this “Mulan” is still a treat, at any size.
★★★½ “Mulan,” with Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Rosalind Chao, Nelson Lee, Gong Li, Jet Li. Directed by Niki Caro, from a screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, based on the narrative poem “The Ballad of Mulan.” 116 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence. Streaming at Disney+, starting Sept. 4. Fee is $29.99 for Disney+ subscribers (which adds the film to your Disney+ library, available for re-watching as long as you remain a subscriber); Disney+ subscription is $6.99/month or $69.99/year.