'Mulan': Film Review

Disney's Live-Action Mulan -Publicity Still 14-H 2019
Walt Disney Pictures
Despite all the splendor, there’s little sense of vision.
9/4/2020

Mulan gets the superhero-origin-story treatment in Niki Caro's long-awaited live-action remake, starring Yifei Liu, Gong Li and Donnie Yen.

Moviegoers lost out on the chance to partake in an infinite visual feast in its ideal setting when the coronavirus forced the release of Disney’s wuxia remake of Mulan first to be delayed for months, then relegated to the company’s streaming service. (Disney+ subscribers will have to pay an additional $29.99 to watch the film.)

From its opening scenes, which take place in a multistory, walled town filled with dozens of colorfully dressed extras in traditional garb, Mulan is never not a delight for the eyes — it wouldn’t even occur to the film to stop stunning. Shot in China and New Zealand by director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper's Wife), it boasts seemingly every topography known to humans, action sequences with thundering steeds and clashing swords, and supernatural special effects that encompass the girly and the Gothic.

With a reported $200 million production budget, Mulan is the most expensive movie ever directed by a woman filmmaker — and every last cent is visible, even on the small screen. And in theaters, the feature's epic grandeur might have provided greater distraction from its anemic characterizations, uninvolving storyline and stunted performances. Earlier this year, producer Jason Reed said that the remake was designed to appeal to both American and Chinese audiences. The result is a creatively squeamish, pokily paced movie by committee that has four credited screenwriters, a slew of hackneyed Disney tropes and an enervating lack of emotional resonance. No wonder it relies so heavily on the 1998 animated film for its musical cues — the nostalgia from the instrumental snippets of “Reflection” are the only reason to feel anything. Despite all the splendor, there’s little sense of vision.

In the earlier Mulan, the title character (voiced by Ming-Na Wen, who appears in a welcome cameo) was a tomboy next door who put herself through a grueling yet heartening man-making process. Her fellow recruits were stock types, but they helped ground her journey amid soldierly camaraderie. Caro’s Mulan, in contrast, is yet another superhero origin story, the protagonist (Liu Yifei) facing off in part against yet another psychologically wounded villainess (Gong Li) longing for a world that would accept female power. But both Mulan and Gong's Xianniang are so thinly sketched that the parallels between them — and the forces that keep them apart — demand as much interest as the inside of a shoe.

Among Disney’s recent live-action remakes, Mulan has been billed as one of the biggest departures from its animated source material. Eddie Murphy’s talking dragon, Mushu, is a long-gone memory, but in many other ways Caro's film feels hampered by its obligatory nods to the cartoon. Once again, a poem about extraordinary filial duty and self-effacing heroism is welded to Disney’s go-to crisis for its young women protagonists: the threat of arranged marriage. When the Chinese emperor (Jet Li) imposes conscription to protect the country from Hun-like invaders (whose stylization owes much to the Dothrakis on Game of Thrones), Mulan volunteers in her enfeebled veteran father’s (Tzi Ma) stead, leaving in the middle of the night with his horse, sword and draft notice — and posing as his son.

But Mulan’s most dynamic relationship isn’t with the shape-shifting witch Xianniang, the soldiers' commanding officer (Donnie Yen) or her functionally nameless comrades in arms (Yoson An, Jimmy Wong, Doua Moua, Chen Tang and Jun Yu), but with her qi — here a kind of supernatural strength and endurance that she’d been taught, as a girl, to suppress. With nary a substantial mentor, friend or love interest in sight, though, there’s little to watch about her journey, even if a hot-pink phoenix guides her through her darkest moments.

Liu has enough charisma for a lead performance, but the script gives her no depth and no meaningful relationships to work with. The slo-mo, horse-riding scene in which Mulan realizes she can embrace both her power and her femininity — with her long, professionally curled tresses flying behind her — would be that much more moving if we ever got a sense that there was a personality under all that hair. This Mulan is unadulterated virtue — the kind of hero no one can see themselves in.

The one element new to this remake that contributes anything of emotional note are the small scenes in which Mulan has to deal with the logistics of being a woman in men’s clothes. Her avoidance of the group showers — and the resulting odor — supply too-brief respites from the convoluted storyline, in which the nomads' invasion and the Chinese pursuit of them are hard to follow geographically. But most disappointing is what little material is given to Gong, whose talon-fingered, fish scale-skirted, rib-crowned Xianniang would be a cult Halloween costume any other year.

Co-starring Joy Luck Club alum Rosalind Chao as Mulan’s mother and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story star Jason Scott Lee as the leader of the invaders, Mulan has plenty of Easter eggs to keep hunters busy. But most viewers are likely to more appreciate the lush bamboo forests and moss-covered hills, as well as the stirring if not exactly original wuxia action, in which soldiers run on walls, horse archers ride backwards and flowing curtains are transformed into battle weapons. All around Mulan, reality stops and starts, bending to the will of the graspers and the searchers. And then there's our heroine, the void at the center of the storm.

Production company: Walt Disney Studios
Director: Niki Caro
Screenwriters: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin
Cast: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Gong Li, Jet Li
Producers: Chris Bender, Jake Weiner, Jason Reed
Executive producers: Bill Kong, Barrie M. Osborne, Tim Coddington, Mario Iscovich
Director of photography: Mandy Walker
Editor: David Coulson
Production designer: Grant Major
Costume designer: Bina Daigeler
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Visual effects supervisor: Sean Andrew Faden
Special effects supervisor: Mark R. Byers
Stunt coordinator: Ben Cooke, Scott Rogers
Casting: Debra Zane

Rated PG-13, 115 minutes