By Susan Granger
Special to WestportNow
To help build its budding streaming service during this pandemic, Disney decided to release the new, live-action version of its popular 1998 animated film “Mulan” on Disney+.
But unlike “Hamilton” and Beyonce’s “Black is King,” Disney is levying an additional ‘premium’ charge of $29.99 on top of the subscribers’ $6.99 monthly fee. This experiment capitalizes on growing demand for at-home movie-watching.
Based on the Chinese ballad of Hua Mulan, the plot follows an intrepid young woman (Yifei Liu) from a small village who poses as a man so she can take her father’s place, defending the Emperor (Jet Li) in the war against the Rouran, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
Agile and acrobatic, Hua Mulan’s audacious independence worries her parents (Rosalind Cho, Tzi Ma) who are shamed when Mulan steals her aging father’s sword and armor to take his place in the Imperial Army, gaining confidence in her fighting skills and earning the admiration of Chen Honghui (Yoson An).
Beijing’s Yifei Liu beat out 1,000 other actresses to snag the titular role for which she trained seven hours a day for three months. The scene of warriors on horseback, swiveling in the saddle to shoot arrows, is breathtaking!
While Yifei Liu performs most of her own stunts — riding, sword-fighting and martial arts — Gong Li steals the picture as the enigmatic warrior-sorceress Xianniang. Wearing a face-paint mask and intricate headgear, she transforms into various shapes, including a menacing flock of birds.
Working from a revised script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, who eliminated the bouncy tunes and talking animals, it’s directed by New Zealand-born Niki Caro. Obviously inspired by imaginative Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Tsui Hark, Ms. Caro previously delved into the theme of patriarchy in “Whale Rider” and “North Country.”
And kudos to cinematographer Mandy Walker, who captures majestic landscapes and superbly-choreographed fight sequences in this $200-million film, the priciest of Disney’s recent live-action remakes, including “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”
FYI: In terms of diversity, despite the success of “Parasite” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” Asians are underrepresented on the big screen despite Asian Americans being the fastest-growing demographic. And Min-Na Wen (the original animated voice of Mulan) does a cameo, introducing Mulan to the Emperor.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mulan” is an exciting, action-packed 8. As long as you maintain your Disney+ subscription, you can watch it as many times as you like.
If you subscribe to Disney+, you also have access to “The One and Only Ivan,” a heartwarming, live-action/CGI adventure that’s about friendship, freedom and the power of visualization.
Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) is a soulful, 400-pound silverback gorilla who lives in a cage as part of a tiny circus in a suburban shopping mall. He shares a communal habitat with Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie), an aging elephant, and the brusque dog Bob (voiced by Danny DeVito).
Ivan’s best-friend is young Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), daughter of mall employee George (Ramon Rodriguez). When Julia shares some of her broken crayons with Ivan, they discover that Ivan loves to draw and paint — acclaimed as “a primate Picasso.”
Ivan’s fellow ‘performers’ are the pampered poodle Snickers (voiced by Helen Mirren), the outspoken parrot Thelma (voiced by Phillipa Soo), the baseball-playing chicken Henrietta (soul singer Chaka Khan), the juggling seal Frankie (Mike white), and the firetruck-driving rabbit Murphy (Ron Funches).
Much to the chagrin of Ringmaster Mack (Bryan Cranston), business is declining until an adorable baby pachyderm named Ruby (voiced by Brooklyn Prince) arrives, and Ivan considers how to change the constricted confines of their lives.
Based on Katherine Applegate’s Newberry Medal 2012 bestseller, it’s adapted by Mike white and directed by Thea Sharrock with cinematography by Florian Ballhaus. Reminiscent of “Charlotte’s Web,” it’s family-friendly, filled with a poignant melancholy.
Angelina Jolie recalls her daughter Shiloh read the book and urged her to get involved as one of the producers: “This younger generation is aware of what’s happening in the world to our natural habitats, to these animals — the gorillas, the elephants. As a mother, as an artist, this film is important.”
FYI: The ‘real’ Ivan lived at B & I Amusement Center in Tacoma, Washington, for 27 years, having been raised by humans until he was six. After protests by animal welfare activists, he was sent to Zoo Atlanta.
On the Granger Gauge, “The One and Only Ivan” is a sweet 6, a touching, tender tale for tiny tots.
(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)