Director Niki Caro’s “Mulan” isn’t just the best adaptation Disney has done from its animated catalog, but one of the most resonant family dramas in a long time — deftly balancing martial-arts excitement, an epic visual sweep and a moving, personal tale of a young woman channeling her warrior spirit.
Disney, in its strip mining of its animated classics, usually goes one of two ways: either sticking faithfully close to the originals — like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” — or, like “Dumbo,” going so far afield that it’s scarcely the same story.
“Mulan” is different. Caro — whose 2002 hit “Whale Rider” is a soul sister to this film — and a quartet of screenwriters draw together the best elements from both the 1998 animated version and the Chinese legend on which it is based, weaving them into a rousing and touching story of family, country and honor.
When we meet Mulan — played as a child by Australian-born 12-year-old Crystal Rao and as an adult by Chinese star Yifei Liu — she’s the rambunctious daughter of Zhou (Tzi Ma, “The Farewell”) and Li (Rosalind Chao). Li believes Zhou spoils his daughter, letting her ride her horse in the fields as if she was his son, instead of preparing her for her future as some young man’s bride. A disastrous screening interview with the village matchmaker (Cheng Pei-Pei, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) highlights Mulan’s difficulty trying to be a dutiful daughter and bring honor to her family.
Soon the village receives word that the emperor (played by martial-arts icon Jet Li) needs to raise an army, to battle invaders led by the merciless Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Each family must send one male member — and because Zhou and Li have only daughters, it’s up to Zhou, a war veteran with a bum leg, to accept the call. Instead, Mulan sneaks away with Zhou’s sword and her horse, and joins the army disguised as a young man.
It’s to Caro’s credit that there’s no wisecracking dragon sidekick voiced by Eddie Murphy, or that when Commander Tung (played by martial-arts legend Donnie Yen) tells the conscripts in boot camp that “we’ll make men out of you,” it’s not the cue for a Donny Osmond musical number — both of which happened in the 1998 version. The only singing here is Christina Aguilera’s rendition of a new song, “Loyal Brave True,” over the end credits, followed by Aguilera and Liu singing beautiful English and Chinese versions of the animated movie’s ballad “Reflection.”
Instead, Caro depicts the rough-and-tumble of Mulan’s training along with her efforts to hide her femininity to prevent being expelled from camp and bringing shame to her family. Caro also sets up a challenging relationship between Mulan and Xianniang (played by the Chinese star Gong Li), a sorceress warrior in league with Böri Khan — and the Darth Vader to Mulan’s Luke Skywalker.
Caro refashions “Mulan” into an energetic action movie that’s also a thoughtful family drama, and is respectful to the story’s Chinese roots. It’s also epic in scale, with big battle scenes and dynamic set pieces that would have been glorious on a big screen — which was the plan before COVID-19 hit, and prompted Disney to first delay the release and ultimately put the movie up as a $29.99 premium offering on its Disney+ streaming service.
For all the majesty of such Chinese cinema icons as Gong Li, Jet Li and Donnie Yen on board, the marvel of “Mulan” is Liu herself. She just turned 33, and has a couple dozen credits in film and TV in China — and she shows, through her athletic action work and moving performance, that she’s earned this big Hollywood break. Liu makes this “Mulan” a stirring, moving look at a young woman defying her family and society to create her rightful place in the world.
A soulful, dynamic live-action upgrade to Disney’s 1998 animated tale of a young Chinese woman disguising herself as a man to go into combat.
Where • Streaming on Disney+, with a $29.99 premium payment (good for unlimited views as long as you have your account).
When • Starting Friday, Sept. 4.
Rated • PG-13 for sequences of violence.
Running time • 115 minutes.