- Directed by Niki Caro
- Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek
- Starring Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen and Jet Li
- Classification PG; 115 minutes
Eventually, Disney is going to open its vault, frantically search for an animated movie to mutate into a live-action blockbuster and turn up empty. Until that day arrives, though – and let’s pray that executives only dip into the classic cartoons and leave the Pixar canon alone, because how horrifying would a real-life Toy Story be? – we will have a decade or two more of products like Mulan.
Familiar and respectful, director Niki Caro’s remake of the 1998 animated hit is designed for twin purposes, neither of them artistically admirable: To appease fans of the original cartoon and make a boatload of money in China. The film should accomplish both feats of commerce handily, even in this pandemic era. Because while COVID-19 has forced Disney to release the film in many parts of the world not in theatres but as a premium offering on Disney+, that particular streaming service isn’t available in China, where multiplexes also happen to be back in steady business.
So though there is no real cinematic need for Mulan 2.0 to exist –just as Disney’s updates of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin could be erased from history with little cultural consequence – Caro offers and accomplishes far more with Mulan than Mulan asks of her.
Sticking close to the original film’s story but abandoning its songs and cutesy Disney Renaissance touches – apologies in advance to anyone hoping that Eddie Murphy’s talking dragon Mushu would resurface here – Caro’s Mulan proves itself early and often. It may not be essential, but it is more thoroughly original in design and entertaining in execution than anything plopping out of the Mouse House’s remake factory floor.
Once again using the Chinese legend to tell a story of empowerment and familial responsibility, Mulan opens with the nation under attack from bloodthirsty invaders. When the Emperor (Jet Li, regrettably throne-bound) orders each of his kingdom’s families to send one male relative to battle, the brave and headstrong Mulan (Liu Yifei) volunteers by masquerading her gender in order to prevent her ailing father (Tzi Ma) from sacrificing himself.
Working with a budget many times that of her previous projects combined, Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife) has a ball burning through her producers’ vast resources, staging massive battles and building a richly detailed world from scratch. Sumptuously designed, brightly costumed and shot with an eye toward epic grandeur, the new film is simply gorgeous to take in, no matter the size of the screen.
Less pretty is the script, which took four screenwriters to conjure even though there’s perfectly good source material just sitting there, waiting for a photocopy machine. The characters are not particularly layered, a third-act twist makes zero narrative sense and there is enough exposition-heavy dialogue to bludgeon an entire battalion. (“I’m your commanding officer!” barks a, well, commanding officer played by Donnie Yen.)
And though most of the cast have fun with the material, especially villains played by Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li, Yifei displays a curious lack of nerve as the title hero. Mulan is obviously a warrior far more skilled than her male compatriots, but Yifei doesn’t seem that interested in developing her as a character with needs and desires outside the battlefield. The star’s emotional register is flat, her energy only spiking when there’s a wall to scale or a bad guy to kick. Also unfortunate is Caro’s decision to sometimes treat all this hand-to-hand combat as if she was trying to out-style James Wan, flipping her camera on its axis in a bout of aesthetic trickery that quickly exhausts its novelty.
Yet once the film’s rousing finale arrives, and Christina Aguilera’s genuine banger of an anthem, Loyal Brave True, blasts over the end credits, Mulan wins its many battles. Long – or long enough to keep Disney from re-remaking it – may it reign.
Mulan is available for $34.99 to Disney+ subscribers beginning Sept. 4
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