** SPOILERS **
Loyal. Brave. True.
Director Niki Caro's thrilling and rapturous Mulan is a fable about a young woman in Ancient China who discovers her true potential and - this is really important, especially for the culture and setting of the story - she is allowed to be the person she is without fear of the penalty of death, expulsion, and dishonor to herself and her family. In terms of Disney's live-action adaptations of their own beloved animated catalog, Mulan is first-class and ranks up there (in my book) with Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and Guy Richie's Aladdin. Instead of a shot-for-shot remake of the cartoon, like Jon Favreau's The Lion King, Caro instead adapts the original source material and aims for a more mature vision of the story with an excellent all-Asian cast. (No Eddie Murphy providing the voice of Mushu the dragon, who isn't in this movie). Thankfully, like Mulan's (Yeifei Liu) aim with a bow and arrow, Caro's aim is true. (And loyal. And brave.)
In Mulan's mythology, Hua Mulan is a little like Rey; since she was a little girl, she was gifted with the incredible ability to tap into her chi, which, the film explains, is like the Force in Star Wars. Everyone has chi but only a special few can really harness it to unleash fighting and acrobatic abilities that would make Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan envious. Mulan can do incredible things but she was ordered by her loving father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) to hide her chi. In their culture, daughters must marry to bring honor to their family, and nothing more. Mulan is not a son and cannot be a warrior. But Mulan isn't best suited to be a wife, nor is her father, who is hobbled from an old war injury, suited to become a soldier once again. But when the Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that each family in China must provide one man for the Imperial Army, Hua Zhou has no choice, even if conscription is a death sentence. But instead, Mulan steals Zhou's sword and armor and rides into war in his place. At stake, if Mulan's deception is discovered, is her very life, as well as the honor of her family, including her mother Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) and her little sister Hua Xiu (Xana Tang). But protecting and guiding Mulan is a beautiful phoenix, which is the spirit of her ancestors that, apparently, only Mulan can see. Seriously, can anyone else see that phoenix? It's all over the place.
Meanwhile, China is under attack by an army called the Rourans led by a warlord named Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Bori Khan's own father was killed by the Emperor during the last rebellion and he's out to topple the dynasty once and for all. Bori Khan isn't the villain from the animated Mulan, but Caro's film ingeniously creates an even better villain in Xian Lang (Gong Li), a witch who is the broken mirror image of Mulan. Also gifted with incredible chi powers, Xian Lang was banished and has suffered from China's rules all of her life. She joined with Bori Khan because he promised to build a new China where Xian Lang would be accepted - which is a pretty understandable motivation, if you think about it, even though she murders a lot of people. Of course, Xian Lang's interest is piqued when she meets Mulan, who is a lot like Xian Lang but, for some reason, Mulan isn't as hated for who she is. Maybe because Mulan doesn't have freaky bird claws for hands? Just spitballing here.
Not that Mulan has an easy time of it. Indoctrinated into the Imperial Army as a soldier in the Fifth Battalion, Mulan poses as Hua Jun, the son of Hua Zhou, and this even briefly fools the battalion's leader, Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), who served with Mulan's father and takes a shine to his "son". As Hua Jun, Mulan is always on guard with her new friends, terrified that they'll discover he's a she, especially Chen Honghui (Yosun An), the handsome dude who wants to be pals with Hua Jun but finds he's really standoffish for some reason. Mulan is so afraid of being discovered, she goes for weeks without showering, so it says a lot that everyone still likes Hua Jun even though he positively stinks. Mulan is also afraid to show off what she can do but during training, she can't help herself and she lets loose with her chi. But to her surprise, instead of being scorned, everyone thinks she's super awesome. Commander Tung even wants Hua Jun to marry his daughter, which is hilariously awkward, and their relationship is a lot like when Homer Simpson joined the Navy Reserves and Captain Tenille came to love him as the son he never had. (Hua Zhou is the father Mulan never visits.)
But soon, it's time for the Fifth Battalion to go to war against the Rourans and Mulan can hide no longer. Mulan's first confrontation with Xian Lang is electric because as a female with a lotta chi, she knows another when she sees her. It turns out lies poison your chi, which weakens Mulan against Zian Lang. The witch even uses the old, "We're not so different, you and I" supervillain taunt that Green Goblin and Dr. Evil would use on Spider-Man and Austin Powers centuries later. But it's when Xian Lang "kills" Huan Jun that Mulan finally rises, and her arrival as a red robe-clad, acrobatic superhero is worth the wait. Mulan is a revelation on the battlefield and she easily turns the tide and saves her friends in the Fifth Battalion. But when she reveals who she is, Commander Tung expels her from the Army and sends her packing in disgrace, as he must, because rules are rules. Amusingly, Honghui goes to bat for Mulan and so do the rest of their friends. They accept Mulan because, c'mon, dude, she's awesome, does it matter if she's not a dude? Honghui's turn is especially fun since he wastes no time adjusting easily from, "I wish Hua Jun was my buddy" to "Whoa, he's a she, and she's hot. This works even better for me!" (Narrator: It doesn't.)
Accepted by the Fifth Battalion for the badass female she is, of course, Mulan leads them into the Imperial City to save Emperor Jet Li from Bori Khan. Of course, Mulan faces Bori Khan herself and, of course, she wins, but with a little help from the Emperor and Xian Lang, who makes the noble sacrifice in her "far better thing I do than I have ever done" moment. Thing is, Xian Lang didn't really have to do that; she could have helped Mulan and the Emperor would have pardoned her since he turned out to be a great guy despite his crazy eyes. But whatevs, Mulan saves the Dynasty and she is even introduced in court by Ming-Na Wen (the voice of animated Mulan) herself, in probably the most elegant passing of the torch moment of that type I've ever seen. But Mulan turns down a job offer to join the Emperor's Guard so she can go home and reconcile with her family, and surprisingly, the Emperor is cool with that too, as Mulan reaffirms the importance of being true to your family.
Mulan's reunion with her family is emotional and sweet, and it hammers home how charismatic Yeifei Lui is as Mulan and how well-cast her family (and all of the actors) are in the film. But moments later, Commander Tung arrives with a brand new sword for Mulan and a reiteration of the Emperor's job offer. Unfortunately, despite her elevated status and freedom, Mulan still has lousy career prospects: It's either be a bodyguard or... nothing. But Mulan becomes a revered legend as a great warrior so she probably takes the bodyguard position, and that's better than being a mere wife (poor Honghui). Quibbles aside, Mulan is a shining example of the hero's journey and it's a visually spectacular film with a beautiful cast, heart, soul, and an amazing heroine who loves her family so much, she'll risk her own neck and their disgrace just to keep her daddy alive a few more years. And that's what's important about Mulan: she didn't go to war for her own glory but to keep her father safe. She even kept hiding her abilities just as he told her to. Mulan is reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but despite what she endured, Mulan still had it a lot better than Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who was every bit as powerful as Mulan but her culture wouldn't allow her to express herself, so she became a villain. Mulan is the fairy tale version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where being loyal, brave, and (eventually) true gets you far in life, even in Ancient China.