Synopsis – A young Chinese maiden disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father.
My Take – Like most fans of Disney’s Renaissance-era classics, I too have been substantially dissatisfied with the Mouse House’s persistence to remake their entire animated catalog.
But I guess it is understandable from a company’s point view after all The Jungle Book, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin did solid numbers at the box office, hence it seemed like a viable idea that their next film on the docket would be Mulan, the 1998 film directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, which while being an animated female led musical also turned out to be a solid action film and ended up receiving severe appreciation even from boys who may have balked at another princess tale.
Plus considering the massive numbers the Chinese box office has been contributing to overseas haul of blockbusters over the past few years, a film starring an entirely Chinese cast was just going to be an added benefit.
Unfortunately for the Niki Caro directed film, like every blockbuster originally set to release this year, the film had to see release delay from its original March release date about four times, that is until Disney made the decision to go ahead with a theatrical release in a few countries (where cinemas re-opened) starting yesterday, while making it available for the rest on their Disney+ streaming service but with $30 premier access price tag.
Coming to the quality of the film, honestly, I was left disappointed. While in comparison, this new remake has several things going for it that many other Disney remakes otherwise didn’t, like how it is not a shot by shot remake, as it replaces kid friendly elements like comic dragon Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy) and the musical numbers, in favor of stunning fight scenes and luscious locations giving the film a more grown-up feel than the animated version.
Sadly, other than that factor the film is a mess, as it struggles to contract its action with the story and is largely bogged down by a weak and non-cohesive screenplay. It is strange to see how the film doesn’t seem concerned with deeper characterization, deeper world-building, or even a deeper plot.
Sure, it’s stylish, colorful, and decently acted, with entertaining action sequences, overall, though, the film is a rote, flat, paint-by-numbers version of the story you already know, and already one time around.
The story set in feudal China follows Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), who despite being a girl and living in a traditional village has always showed a little too much independence due to her excessive possession of Chi from a very young age, making her always a case of worry for her father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) and her mother Hua Li (Rosalind Chao), who don’t face the same amount of troubles from their other daughter, Hua Xiu (Xana Tang).
While she promises her father to hide her abilities and bring honor to her family by simply getting married as expected from her, Mulan’s life takes an interesting turn when The Emperor of China (Jet Li), orders the conscription of one man from every family in the country to defend the nation against the Northern invaders known as Rourans led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and Xian Lang (Gong Li), a powerful witch with shape shifting abilities.
Concerned that her ailing father would not make it back alive, escapes with his armor and sword in the middle of the night, Mulan chooses to masquerade as a man and joins the army in service to their emperor.
There is no doubt that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) delivers a visually stunning film that skillfully mixes action sequences with quieter, dramatic moments. As you’d expect from a Disney film, the art direction and scenic design are especially well done. Caro’s direction is strong at various points throughout the film, particularly during the action sequences, which are often clever despite some awkward editing.
The theme of being true to yourself shines through, as it retains the original story of a young woman breaking free of sexist traditions to be the person she wants to be, not the one that her family wants her to be. It is also a major relief that the original film’s stereotypical jokes, language, and characterizations have been excised, and there’s enough entertainment happening onscreen to keep one mightily engaged.
Unfortunately, this life action re-telling suffers in more departments than it succeeds, starting with a choppy script, from four credited writers, who decided that adapting a gritty tone also meant the stripping of the emotional development.
A lot of drama behind the character of Mulan is stripped out of her to rush the film along. Again and again, plot ideas are introduced but never delved into. Mulan apparently has extraordinary Chi, but we don’t know why hers is so much stronger than most people’s, or why she’s so inherently ashamed of it, since powerful Chi is a highly desirable attribute in Chinese culture.
The lack of emotional development especially shortchanges the film’s main plot thread like Mulan battling, and ultimately coming to terms with, her gender.
Here, the story fails to present this giant conflict in a way that feels compelling. Her guilt over hiding her identity is what drives her big emotional shift, only we don’t really see or feel Mulan’s internal conflict, apart from a couple of repeated references to her failure to embody truth. What we see onscreen far more often than Mulan feeling guilty for deceiving everyone is Mulan being preoccupied with successfully passing as a man, a classic trans mentality that invites us to empathize with her as a potentially trans character.
The film also presents us with a new set of villains, but they’re barely given more than a few lines of exposition, never enough depth or screen time to be made interesting. Their backstories and individual motives could have made for a rich and complicated story arc, but instead, like every other potentially interesting thing in the film, it is chopped off hastily.
Though it initially seemed like the film aim to set the two determined women in opposition to each other, both wanting to transcend the strictures of patriarchy, just in different ways, it ends up only offering only a brief charge of actual resonance, with no spark, rushing to a climax that leaves this complicated dynamic mostly wasted. A few nonsensical third-act plot points are also tossed in for convenience and then hand-waved away.
Performances wise, Liu Yifei, does her best to imbue personality into a lifeless and humorless script. Though she has sadly become the most controversial aspect of the film, Yifei plays the role to perfection as a classic Disney heroine and a modern day heroine combined, and is one of the best reason to watch this ravishing looking epic. Gong Li seems to be having fun doing her thing, slinking and thrashing around in a fabulous black witch’s cloak.
Known Asian actors, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Tzi Ma and Rosalind Chao are alright in their roles, and are ably supported by Yoson An, Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang, Jun Yu and Doua Moua. On the whole, ‘Mulan’ is visually affecting action drama hampered by a watered-down and choppy script.
Directed – Niki Caro
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 115 minutes