Review: Disney's live action 'Mulan' squanders its potential
Courtesy of Disney+
Of all the live-action Disney adaptations, Disney’s “Mulan” had the most potential. Not only is Niki Caro - the filmmaker behind such gems like “Whale Rider” and “McFarland U.S.A” - in the directing chair, one of a handful of female directors ever given the reins to a $200 million tentpole, but herself and writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek made the bold move to ditch the musical theatrics of its animated predecessor, and create a gritty, stylized, and realistic adventure in the vein of the ancient Chinese folk story “The Ballad of Mulan.” While a majority of the action sequences land their mark and the predominantly Asian cast (which needs to be celebrated) certainly try and get mileage out of their characters, the picture still feels like it can’t reach the same inspirational heights of the 1998 classic.
It all starts with the opening sequence when a young Mulan, prances and bounces around her village trying to squash a bug. An attempt to show the relentless attitude and perseverance of this young warrior that I’m sure will play well to younger children, but Disney seemed to suggest this “Mulan” - with a PG13 rating - would try to break the mold of past live action iterations. Then again, they make family friendly pictures, so it’s breaded in their DNA.
Now sacred villages, as well as the Imperial City, overlooked by the Emperor (Jet Li - who is totally unrecognizable) face grave danger thanks to enemy forces headed by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his shapeshifting comrade Xianniang (Li Gong), a character that wasn’t in the cartoon, who are making their way across China destroying everything in their path. Word gets out of their imminent attack, sending the Chinese government into overhaul and to collect one male soldier from each family in the surrounding territories.
Enter adult Mulan (Yifei Liu) whose father Zhou (Tzi Ma) only sees her as the bride she’ll eventually become, but when the Imperial Army comes knocking, the female soldier can’t deny her true destiny: fighting for the homeland. In the night, she takes her father's armor, sword, and sneaks off, joining the ranks undercover as a young boy yearning for battle.
Once on the frontlines, under the authority of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), you won’t see characters burst into song or Eddie Murphy’s fan favorite Mushu - though composer Harry Gregson-Williams incorporates the instrumentals of the 1998 “Mulan” into the mix - but instead thrilling training montages that in turn lead to some stunning battle sequences. Oh, and Bina Daigeler’s costume design is impeccable.
But there’s something off about everything in between. There are serious undertones throughout Caro’s film that suggests a lighthearted and silly feel, only to turn around and raise the stakes considerably. I found it tough to gauge the demographic “Mulan” was going for. On one hand, it’s too intense for smaller children, but on the other not serious enough for older ones. The message of strong female empowerment obviously transcends age barriers, yet, aside from the titular Mulan - of which Liu turns in a solid portrayal - none of the secondary characters seem fleshed out.
Notably, Honghui (Yoson An) who comes across stoic and creepy rather than a suitable love interest, and there’s no comradery among the soldiers: remember the three stooges who served as both comic relief and decent sidekicks for Mulan in the animated version? Their warmth is missing. I understand the filmmakers are going for serious touches, but at least make other characters somewhat tangible, because it’s never a good sign if I’m not rooting for these warriors on the battlefield. Plus, wasn’t the original “Mulan” built on the foundation of relationships and teamwork?
Still, there are some breathtaking hand to hand combat sequences displayed here, a stern indicator of the tone and balance Caro was going for, and perhaps a reason why Disney should have saved this film for theatrical release. Putting it bluntly, these sequences don’t play well on a small screen (I have a decent living room set-up and I could still see dodgy looking effects that looked borrowed from poorly rendered video games). Not saying “Mulan” would have landed better on a big screen storywise, but these action sequences - with Bob Iger’s deep pockets - were clearly tailored for the theatrical medium.
Though none of it can hide the fact that “Mulan” registered, for me, as a letdown. Which is a shame because of all the live action remakes, this one seemed most poise to prove something. That Disney can reconfigure their stories with the right talent in front of and behind the camera to deliver something exceptional, but too often “Mulan” feels like an ill-advised attempt to cash in on an existing property. I understand the previous remakes were designed that way too, except this iteration, on the surface, suggested something different. Instead, it ends up feeling like just another Disney movie, and not a very good one either.
MULAN will be made available exclusively for Disney+ subscribers who pay $29.99 to unlock premier access on September 4th.