The subject of the Disney live-action remakes has always, and will continue to be, an inherently tricky topic. So many of these movies harken back to a sense of nostalgia, even for us ’90s kids. As such, they’re easy to love. They’re familiar. They’re easily digestible. However, they also bring about some harsh criticism. They’re bland. Soulless. Tired. So, considering all this, where does the studio land with their newest offering, Mulan?
Mulan is the latest in the growing line of Disney live-action remakes, focusing on the titular young woman (Liu Yifel). She joins the Chinese army to save her aging father (Tzi Ma) when the Emperor (Jet Li) calls all families to send one man to serve in the wake of a national threat led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Mulan is based on the studio’s 1998 animated feature of the same name. Li Gong, Donnie Yen and Yonson An co-star in the film. Meanwhile, Niki Caro directs from a script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek.
The movie is another in a line of hotly anticipated Disney fare ready to go when the industry hit the covid brick wall in 2020. Mulan was initially scheduled to hit theaters in March of this year. The studio then pushed it back to the summer, before finally deciding to drop it on streaming site Disney Plus in September. It is this I think, which is the inherent tragedy of this tale. Hollywood Reporter writes that Mulan cost the studio an impressive 200 million dollars, making it the priciest of the Disney remakes. This also makes it (according to The Wrap) one of the most expensive films directed by a woman.
Ultimately, the budget is what stands out with this movie. Director Niki Caro absolutely hits Mulan out of the park visually. It is inherently cinematic, and it looks very, very expensive. From the beautiful location work to the vivid, colorful costumes and the lively and intricate fight choreography, Mulan should be on a much bigger screen. In fact, it seems almost an injustice to watch these sweeping landscapes on a television or laptop screen.
At the same time, Liu Yifei fronts this movie with a sense of power and confidence. She brings the young Mulan to life with a seasoned eye, easily conveying her struggles and her complexity. In the hands of a different actress, a character like Mulan could fall into a number of different traps. Yifei is not afraid to be vulnerable when she needs to be, and as the plot hits the midpoint of the second act, we watch Mulan gallop full speed into battle to save the day, where she brings an invigorating sense of strength and self-certainty young girls need to see. Her take on Mulan makes no apologies, and she sees her own potential in a much larger world.
As a feature, Mulan falls into other traps that do keep it from reaching its own potential. Much of this stems from a script caught in between ideas of what exactly it wants to be. At times, Mulan feels like a studied martial arts film. At others it is a sweeping military epic. Ultimately, though, it’s still a Disney movie.
This begins early on — in the first scene– as young Mulan shows herself to have some fairly impressive superpowers. The script doesn’t explain the detail — it is her inherent chi — until the narrative stops dead in the second act to deliver a clunky bit of exposition. Movies love to do this right now. Disney really loves doing this as a way of crafting ultra-powerful women on screen. And, when this is incorporated in Mulan, it results in impressively choreographed action sequences, particularly into the third act. However, at its core Mulan doesn’t need this. Mulan brings tremendous strength in her normalcy. Not every woman on screen needs to harness an unseen superpower. There is joy and emotionality in watching a character struggle. They don’t always have to succeed. Disney needs to get comfortable with the idea that women can be powerful and strong while still being human.
Meanwhile, the film’s editing is very choppy throughout, omitting many important transitions between set pieces. While this keeps Mulan moving, the jumps in the editing also erase vital character development. For example, Mulan’s actual decision to join the army in her father’s place is cut out, leaving audiences a fairly jarring and shallow transition to a fully changed and resolute Mulan as she leaves home. The choice is a strange one. On top of being potentially disorienting, the audience looses this insight into Mulan at a particularly vulnerable time, pulling them out of the narrative.
The combination of the editing and the resulting struggles with character development detailed above leave the events of the narrative feeling devoid of any real tension. Everything is just a bit too easy. If anyone is angry, it’s never for that long. When people are in peril, you know they’ll get out of it. This is a Disney movie. Things are usually crisp, clean and easy in their world. Though, as they step away from animation, it seems harder to ignore their overly simplistic story telling.
Finally, it is disappointing to see Mulan waste a fascinating and fierce performance from Gong Li as Xianniang. The actress brings an imposing and dramatic screen presence as the movie’s villain. However, instead of developing this woman so she flourishes on screen, the film seems more interested in painting Xianniang and Mulan as two parts of the same whole. This character is what Mulan could become. This is quickly becoming a Disney trope. The studio utilized the same plot device in Aladdin in 2019. When Li is given a real chance to stand-out in the third act, her arc is sped through, in the interest of getting to a conclusion with Khan.
Ultimately, while Mulan is yet another Disney live-action remake, perhaps its struggles feel so pronounced because it has so much potential. Director Niki Caro and star Liu Yifel elevate this movie to a new level. There are great performances, classy direction and some beautiful action sequences. However, this just isn’t enough to quite separate Mulan from the standard Disney criticisms and leaves it a visually impressive example of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
Mulan is currently streaming on Disney Plus for a one time cost of $29.99 (plus a monthly subscription).
This article was originally posted on 9/13/20