Mulan Emphasizes Virtue Over Mere Traits

Image courtesy of Disney

When one looks at the definitions for “trait” and “virtue”, they will see similarities and differences. Traits are “distinguishing qualities,” mainly of someone’s personality. Virtues are specific qualities as well; only they ascend to a level of “effective power” and “moral excellence.” That very distinction is the genuine improvement of Disney’s Mulan as director Niki Caro brings the cultural ballad from a prior place of uneven song-and-dance lip service to a proper epic of empowering sweep where actions speak louder than words.

As with most catalog titles of the Disney Renaissance era enjoying new life on Disney+, the story is, by now (especially being put to film for the 11th time in a century, going back to 1927) familiar. Mulan is the oldest daughter of war veteran Hua Zhou (The Farewell’s Tza Ma). With an effervescent spirit of adventure and a skillful dexterity for combat, she grows to become a gamine teenager (the multi-talented Liu Yifei) more inclined for the daring over the domestic when it comes to being an ideal woman and desirable future spouse.

The cultural pillars are built early through the guidance of Tzi Ma’s patriarch. Proud as he may be of his daughter’s talents and longing for personal freedom, honor over dishonor for his family is still paramount. Here, silence is a required part of a woman’s voice and decorum. They have places they must take, and none of them include the hilt of a sword, the saddle of a horse, or the frontline of a battlefield. Meanwhile, for a man, there is no greater unified familial and national deed than answering the duty to fight and the honor to sacrifice.

The Emperor of China steps down from his thrown
Image courtesy of Disney

Such a cause arrives away from their homestead as a ferocious Rouran warrior named Bori Khan (an emboldened Jason Scott Lee of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) carries a vendetta of revenge against the sitting Emperor of China (Jet Li—in a gem of a comeback role after conquering debilitating hyperthyroidism). Flanked by the powerful shape-shifting witch Xian Lang (Farewell My Concubine ingenue Gong Li), Bori Khan runs roughshod through every fortification and opposition with an invasion of the Kingdom. His approaching threat forces the stern Emperor to conscript an army built by a male member from every household in the land.

Despite being senior in age and nearly crippled as a younger soldier, the son-less Hua must answer that call, one that promises almost certain death. With utmost courage and love for her family, Mulan escapes in the middle of the night with her father’s heirloom sword and armor to pose as a man named Hua Jun to take his place. Under a disguise, she joins an Imperial Army unit trained by Commander Tung (ageless and whirling action star Donnie Yen).

“Control yourself” is the constant parental warning pleaded in Mulan’s direction. Culturally, yoking the energy of your chi is important. Socially, however, her chosen outlets of that chi are entirely misplaced as a woman. Mulan restricts her energy when the unbridled version of herself stands to be greater than her peers. With added significance on the side of the protagonists, Gong Li’s Xian Lang represents a fascinating dark foil for Mulan as a woman defying expectations and embracing her energy’s fullest potential. Knock the obvious comparisons to Kung Fu Panda or “The Force” of Star Wars all you want, the challenging dichotomy of their clash is a fantastic tipping point for the heroine and the film.

The witch Xian Lang shows her claws in a fight
Image courtesy of Disney

Before and after metal clangs and horses neigh, Hidden Figures cinematographer Mandy Walker absorbs every illustrious hue of the rugged Chinese and Kiwi shooting locations enhanced with light special effects from Sean Andrew Faden (Power Rangers). Her rolling, tilting, and craning lenses move effortlessly through the dynamic melee cooked up by stunt coordinators Ben Cooke (1917) and Scott Rogers (Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey) and fight coordinators Heidi Moneymaker (The Hunt), Shane Yan (MCU’s upcoming Shang-Chi), and Nuo Sun (Deadpool 2).

The difference between using that chi for good or for evil circles back to virtues over mere traits. Etched into blades and equally into souls, the cardinal virtues of “loyal,” ‘brave,” and “true” are instilled by every influential and mythical figure in Mulan’s life. Her belief in them never shatters. It’s merely earning and capturing the crucial opportunities to prove her enormous heart belongs where her energy takes her. That’s where true honor is found, and the contagious inspiration sparks—bravo to Yifei Liu for embodying and carrying this movie’s weight of living a virtuous life.

Mulan swings her sword in battle.
Image courtesy of Disney.

Lyrics may be gone, but the musical marrow is still present and poignant. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams borrows heavily from the classic motifs of the late great Jerry Goldsmith. The words of “Reflection” don’t need to be heard to still properly stir as its melody swells throughout the dramatic tone of the movie. If you need that choral boost, the end credits will provide that sensation. Lead actress Yifei Liu performs a lovely Mandarin version of “Reflection” to follow the soprano maven Christina Aguilera returning to her career’s launching pad with an update of her hit and a new original track, “Loyal Brave True,” which will surely garner instant Oscar consideration.

Unlike so many of these “re-imaginings” from Disney, nearly every aspect of this live-action rendition is an enhancement from its predecessor. Wisdom and prudence came from the writer’s room with Planet of the Apes trilogy hitmakers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and an assist from newcomer Elizabeth Martin. The trio expanded the mythology, amped up the battles, doubled the villainy, and, most importantly, dropped the pandering distractions and show-pony antics. Weaknesses are traded for strengths left and right. Once again, for those that ask how they could “make a man” out of this movie without the musical numbers, the answer is simple: with action instead of words. Nothing about Mulan needs any male-centred ego polish.

With those improvements, the next term that deserves the virtue-versus-trait upgrade is the phrase “a woman’s touch.” Sure, Oscar winner Ang Lee would have been fitting and amazing, but Whale Rider and The Zookeeper’s Wife director Niki Caro was no token hire. She did not bring frilly cinematic ribbons and bows for the sake of any low-grade suitability for princesses and merchandising. The effeminate value Caro brought was rooted in fortitude and bravery matching the legendary title character.

It all goes back to encapsulating deeper virtues over surface-thin traits. Women are beyond capable of such independence and profundity, if not more so than their male counterparts. The women, young and old, who stand to be inspired by Mulan are the true “girls worth fighting for.” No song is required. Noble commitment accomplishes far more.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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