“Mulan” brings honor to Disney’s original, but loses some heart

Mulan Liu Yifei in Disney's "Mulan." (Disney)

Niki Caro’s remake of the animated classic slots nicely into the wuxia formula, but a bit of Disney magic gets lost in the mix.

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Of all the blockbusters the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed, postponed, or otherwise bestowed upon movie theaters far too soon, Disney’s remake of Mulan has had maybe the longest, strangest road to life. Back when we still thought going to theaters was still feasible in 2020, Mulan was delayed not once but four times, moving from March 27 all the way back to August 21st. Then, Disney made the decision to drop it on their Disney+ streaming service, but with a $30 “Premier Access” price tag added on — essentially echoing the $20 “early access” VOD releases for other films that were headed to theaters this year, but this time on a streaming service everyone’s already shelling out $7 a month to enjoy.

It’s an odd choice, but an understandable one considering the outsized role Disney’s live-action remakes of their Renaissance-era classics have held in their current stable. Say what you will about them, but The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin all did solid numbers at the box office; with Mulan, a Disney remake that also has the added benefit of catering heavily to the Chinese film market, they want to recoup as much of that $200 million budget back.

Disney live-action remakes chiefly fall into one of two camps: slavish recreations of the original, autotuned remixes of the songs and all, and inventive spins on the material that slot them into new genres and aesthetics. Thankfully, Mulan fits more on the Pete’s Dragon than the Lion King end of the spectrum, turning the China-set gender-bending wartime musical into a comparatively solemn war epic under the direction of Niki Caro (Whale Rider).

Mulan
Gong Li in Disney’s “Mulan.” (Disney)

The nuts and bolts of the story remain the same: in feudal China, the Emperor (Jet Li, his voice obscured behind patently-obvious ADR) orders the conscription of one man from every family in the country to defend the nation against Northern invaders (here, an army of Rourans led by Bori Khan (a scarred-up Jason Scott Lee) with Gong Li‘s mysterious shape-shifting witch at his side). Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), the daughter of an ailing veteran (Tzi Ma), chooses to masquerade as a man and join the army to save her father from facing certain death in service to his emperor.

From there, the comparisons largely fall to the wayside, as Caro and the film’s four (!) screenwriters — none of them Asian, by the way — retool Disney’s original adaptation of the Chinese ballad away from its sillier musical origins and towards a more Serious War Epic. There’s no Mushu, no musical numbers, and no Li Sheng (his role is split between Donnie Yen’s paternalistic commander Tung and Yoson An’s Chen, a fellow soldier and love interest to Mulan). Instead, Mulan reads as Disney’s attempt to capitalize on the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wuxia film trend of the early 2000s, with plenty of Zhang Yimou DNA in the mix.

And in that respect, Mulan succeeds mightily, its mere presence as a straightforward war film with an almost entirely-Chinese cast (with a female director, albeit a white one) making for refreshing viewing. In some ways, I was reminded of Yimou’s recent flirtation with Sino-American filmmaking, the flawed but fascinating The Great Wall: the cast is Chinese, its settings and concerns are Chinese, but everyone speaks English. And here, the appeal of wuxia is suitably localized, with its high-flying wire-fu action at least evoking the Chinese epics of years past, albeit with some of the flair and novelty lost. (Someone tell editor David Coulson that wire-fu choreography thrives in masters, instead of quick-cut close-ups.)

Mulan also includes that taste of the supernatural that’s hardly there in the original outside of Mushu’s status as a lesser ancestral spirit: here, qi is a powerful presence in the lives of Mulan‘s characters, treating it almost like the Force (if you’re strong enough, like Mulan or some others, you get wire-fu powers). Replacing Mushu as the family’s spirit is a barely-seen, silent phoenix, whose presence is more evocative than active. Gong Li’s mercurial witch Xian Lang is a great showcase for the martial arts veteran’s devilish charm: she sports white face paint on the top half of her face (we call that a reverse Furiosa) and hawk talons for fingers, and every minute on screen is a minute where Mulan is twice as interesting.

Here, qi is a powerful presence in the lives of Mulan‘s characters, treating it almost like the Force.

Buoying the supernatural tinges of the story, though, is some gorgeous sun-dappled cinematography. DP Mandy Walker relishes in the bright reds and yellows of the film’s robes, armor, and desert locations, while doing some James Wan-esque camera spins around its characters as they leap, twirl, and run up walls. It doesn’t match the highs of the best of King Hu and Ang Lee, but if a studio-accessible English-language action film like Mulan is enough to give young audiences a taste of wuxia action and encourage them to dig deeper, I welcome it.

At the center of it all is Liu’s Mulan, who exudes a powerful, if subtle, star presence. But in retooling the story to be more “faithful,” inasmuch as it can be, a good deal of Mulan’s personality goes with it. She’s depicted as a mischievous child in the film’s opening minutes, but Liu has to maintain a kind of delicate stoicism even before she dons the male presentation of Hua Jun. She handles the action beats with aplomb, and some of her more intimate exchanges with her father and Commander Tung bring out delightful nuances to her character. But there’s a nagging frustration that the solemnity of the script prevents her from truly letting loose and turning a good performance into a great one.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the rest of the cast is forced to be just as humorless. Even Mulan’s fellow recruits (played by Jimmy Wong, Chen Tang, Jun Yu and Doua Moua) are ‘comic relief’ in ways more suggested than shown. Only a few performers — Ma and Rosalind Chao as Mulan’s parents, and Yen’s wise mentor — manage to eke out some soulful characterization among the downcast self-seriousness of the proceedings.

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Donnie Yen in Disney’s “Mulan.” (Disney)

But even in its retooling, Mulan remains an admirably good-hearted fable about living out earnest virtues and empowering yourself to fulfill your potential, especially when you can utilize that power to help others. Mulan’s family sword reads “Loyal, Brave, and True” — three principles that haunt Mulan, especially given the deception that makes her other sacrifices possible.

And in parallel, Xian Lang is motivated by resentment over the same patriarchal forces that keep Mulan oppressed: “The more power I showed, the more I was quashed.” It’s a neat way to update the story for an audience starved for more female-centric action stories, though it does come at the expense of Lee’s Bori Khan, who’s left to grumble and do the heavy lifting in the film’s climax.

On the scale of Disney remakes, Mulan‘s absolutely on the higher end of the spectrum; if anything, its full-throated dedication to its genre is something to be admired. It’s frequently gorgeous, and it feels super respectful to the source material and (at least from the outside) its home culture. (Some anachronisms occur of course, like the Hakka-inspired architecture of Mulan’s home village being from the wrong part of China — and nearly a millennia too early.) But it’s that respectful solemnity that sometimes gets in the way of the just-shy-of-great remake Mulan‘s attempting to be.

Mulan drops on Disney+ for a $29.99 add-on price on September 4th, then comes to the basic service on December 4th.

Mulan Trailer:

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