Warrior Hua Mulan doesn’t flinch when it comes to scrambling up walls, dodging arrows and crossing swords with foreign invaders. But she may sweat a bit when it comes to her most formidable foe: a steep price to see her in action.
“Mulan,” a live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated smash, gets a traditional release this weekend in countries where it’s relatively safe to venture out to the theater. But in America, the only way to watch is by paying the $6.99 monthly subscription fee for Disney+, and then plunking down an additional $30 for “Mulan.” Popcorn not included.
The streaming service will most likely make the film available at no extra cost before the end of the year. But you won’t want to wait that long, especially if someone in your household could use a jolt of girl power right about now. Niki Caro (whose first Hollywood assignment was directing the Minnesota-set “North Country”) has created the perfect film for those who can’t relate to male-dominated comic book movies but need a hero just the same.
That savior is Mulan (Liu Yifei, who is 33 in real life), a teenager born in a time when the most honorable tasks a young woman can perform are marrying well and overdoing it in the makeup department.
But her heart isn’t in it. In one of the film’s several perfectly choreographed comedy bits, she turns a tea party with a matchmaker into a Buster Keaton routine.
The laughs take a back seat when invaders threaten, forcing the emperor to decree that a male from every family must suit up for battle. In a quest to protect her crippled father — and avoid getting hitched to some village hottie — Mulan disguises herself as a boy and heads into training camp. She soon goes from being one of the guys to leading them.
The ensuing fight scenes are rough, but never bloody. Youngsters should be able to get through them without suffering nightmares for the next century.
The gravity-defying battles will look familiar to Americans who swooned over Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” while those with a deeper appreciation of Asian film will get a kick out of the casting.
Action star Jet Li brings much-needed gravitas to the role of the emperor, who keeps calm when the snarling villain suggests he prepare to die. Martial arts favorite Donnie Yen is the commander with tough talk but a soft heart.
And let the Oscar buzz begin for Gong Li, who, despite being the most popular actress in Chinese cinema, has never really gotten her props stateside. She’s nothing less than regal as Xian Lang, a menacing witch who only sides with the bad guys because they are slightly less sexist than the good ones.
Caro borrows from more than just the Asian film catalog.
The most obvious example is the “Star Wars” franchise, with qi taking the place of the Force. Li’s witch emulates Darth Vader as she tries to lure the Luke-like Mulan to the dark side, promising a future where women with strength won’t get burned at the stake.
There are also shout-outs to B westerns, “Spartacus” and “The Birds.” The opening sequence, in which a young Mulan chases a chicken, is better than anything that passed for action in the last “Indiana Jones” flick.
But Caro, the first woman to direct a movie with a $200 million budget, is more than a master thief.
All her past films, which include “Whale Rider” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” have led to this: a big-budget, big-hearted adventure aimed directly at minority girls who all too often feel left out of the conversation.
Coronavirus constraints — and that hefty admission fee — may keep the film from being as monumental to them as “Black Panther” or even “Crazy Rich Asians” was to others. Let’s hope not. This is one battle Hollywood needs to win.