Describe This Movie In One “Everything I Wanted” Lyric:
BILLIE EILISH: They called me weak / Like I’m not just somebody’s daughter
Brief Plot Synopsis: Young Chinese woman gets down to business to defeat the [touches earpiece] Rouran.
Rating Using Random Elements Relevant To The Film: 2.5 Chris Chambers out of 5.
Tagline: “Loyal, Brave, True.”
Better Tagline: “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: When the Emperor puts out a call for each family in China to provide one man to join the army to fight invaders, Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) has no choice but to take her injured father’s place. Under the withering eye of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) while making unlikely friends (Yoson An), Mulan trains for a climactic confrontation with the forces of Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
“Critical” Analysis: Disney continues its recent trend of releasing live-action remakes of their beloved animated properties. Cinematic cartoon output has slowed across the board, to be sure, but where original content is more of a Pixar thing these days (Incredibles 2 notwithstanding), the Mouse House has been content to reimagine existing properties.
This all started back in 1994, with the first do-over of 1967’s The Jungle Book (done again in 2016), and continues up to the present-day. What makes Mulan (directed by Niki Caro of Whale Rider and McFarland, USA fame) different is how it mostly eschews the fantastical elements of its toon predecessor, opting for a relatively straightforward dramatic approach.
Does it work? In some ways, yes. Caro’s melee set pieces are choreographed well and coherently shot. The locations shots — until the finale, that is — don’t rely overmuch on green screen shenanigans. And with old pros like Yen and Jet Li (as the Emperor himself) alongside next-gen talent like Liu and An, there’s a lot to work with.
Mulan may not be the studio’s first action movie, but it’s the most recent one to shed itself of much of the original version’s youthful orientation. The 1998 version had its share of chilling imagery (the doll in the ruins of the village, Chi-Fu in a towel), but Caro and a raft of writers (including Planet of the Apes trilogy scribes Rick Jaffa and Amanda White) have little use for the original’s comedy, minus an opening scene. Even the infamous matchmaking scene, establishing Mulan’s unsuitability for the traditional woman’s role, is played more soberly.
One unanticipated effect of this serious approach is a sinister appreciation for the dangers of a woman hiding among men in Zhou-era China. Caro plays it lightly (Mulan just doesn’t shower for weeks, problem solved), but the threat realized when “Hua Jun” finally reveals herself is different this time around. Unfortunately, Caro doesn’t capitalize on this.
What also gets lost is some of the animated movie’s perceived subtext between Mulan and Li Shang. The Chen character steps into this role, and the affection remains, even if there’s no real indication whether the character is upset by the discovery or secretly relieved, a la Zapp Brannigan.
But the movie isn’t wholly without fantasy. The Hua family’s protector is now a phoenix, and appears to Mulan at various times (whether anyone else can see it is unclear). Bori Khan, replacing Shan-Yu, still has his falcon, which is actually a shapeshifting witch played by legendary Chinese actress Gong Li. And one can’t help thinking going further in this direction might have made things more interesting.
Because for all that, the finished product is unexpectedly cold. The Imperial City climax drags, and the original’s familiar beats are reinforced by instrumental versions of the 1998 movie’s songs, which serves mostly to remind us how much we miss them. A surfeit of talent and good intentions only go so far when your lead character ends up less flesh and bone than her cartoon predecessor.
Mulan is streaming exclusively on Disney+.