The commitment to martial arts epic is also clear in the rating. Like most of the animated features of the 1990s, Mulan had a G rating, which means the violence, while implied, is off camera. The burned village the soldiers encounter has no survivors—but it also has no bodies. The most graphic moment in the animated film is when one of the soldiers presents Captain Shang with the helmet of his father, showing that General Shang has been killed in action. In the live action Mulan, there’s no shying away from combat. People are pierced by arrows. In a beautifully well-shot combat scene, boulders smeared with burning pitch are hurled into the shield walls of the imperial soldiers, devastating them. Battlefields are strewn with bodies, and while there’s not a ton of gore, it’s these combat sequences that earn the live-action film its PG-13 rating. (One tense moment at the end of the film shows a soldier with several arrows sticking out of his hip; a moment later, it’s revealed that these arrows are in his quiver, and he’s safe. It’s the kind of humor that might not play well with a younger audience, but the bait-and-switch works beautifully inside the context of a martial arts film.)
While there are scenes in the live-action version that quote the original film verbatim (Mulan’s father’s scolding when she protests that he’ll die if he goes to fight in the army, for example), tthers are familiar, but changed: For example, the scene in which Mulan takes a bath in the lake near the camp and runs into a fellow soldier and works to hide her body beneath the water’s surface, is adjusted to be less humorous and more tense. Here, when Liu’s Mulan encounters Honghui (played by Yoson An), she stays faced away from him, and it’s clear to adult audience members that she can’t turn around, because just the slope of her shoulders would give her away.
There’s also a nice nod to the animated film when a beautifully garmented Ming Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the animated film, presents Liu’s Mulan to the Emperor.
Mulan the Strategist vs. Mulan the Warrior
In the animated feature, Mulan is no warrior. She’s as horrible in combat, at the beginning of the film, as the majority of her peer recruits. The training montage they receive (to the tune of Donnie Osmond’s performance of “I’ll Make a Man out of You”) shows them moving from complete disasters as soldiers to a competent fighting force. Mulan, one of the weakest and smallest among them, is nearly sent home in the middle of the song, until she makes a realization about one of the training exercises. In one of the defining moments for her character, she successfully retrieves an arrow from the top of a pole, using weights representing strength and discipline as a tool to help her achieve the goal (rather than allowing the weights to drag her down). A similar moment in Captain America: The First Avenger takes place when the physically weak military recruit Steve Rogers realizes that, instead of climbing a pole, he can take out the pin at the bottom, sending the pole falling to the ground. While Mulan’s strategy still requires actual strength, it’s her intelligence that allows her to defeat the obstacle.
Live-action Mulan, on the other hand, is warned from the beginning of the film that she has too much chi for a girl. While there are deeper definitions of chi/qi/ki as described in philosophy and martial arts, in the context of the film, chi seems to represent a warrior’s energy, one that society decides that the greatest male warriors should have and that women should not. Though Mulan’s father indulges her by teaching her martial arts, and though she is clearly gifted at stunts both dramatic and small (once catching falling teacups in a stunt reminiscent of a scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), ultimately, her wellspring of chi will bring dishonor to her family. As a soldier, she nearly forgets that she can reveal her chi: she’s posing as a man, where her chi will be praised and valued rather than derided. When Mulan faces the challenge to make it to the top of a mountain (rather than a pole) with two buckets of water (rather than two weights), she draws on her inner chi to get through the challenge. It is this chi, this formidable skill as a warrior, that makes the live-action film’s Mulan stand apart from her animated counterpart.