'Mulan': What the Critics Are Saying

Mulan Still 1 -Liu Yifei - Disney Enterprises Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Disney

'Mulan'

The first reviews for Niki Caro's live-action remake of Disney's 1998 original are in, with critics praising the performances and visual scope of the movie despite a lack of vision.

Reviews are in for Niki Caro's long-awaited live-action remake of Mulan, starring Liu Yifei in the title role opposite Jet Li, Li Gong, Donnie Yen and Jason Scott Lee.

In the film, a young Chinese maiden disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father from military service. The movie currently boasts a 77 percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and will be available to Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. and select international markets on Sept. 4 at a premium price.

For The Hollywood Reporter, critic Inkoo Kang praised the visual look of the film, which was shot in China and New Zealand with a reported $200 million budget. "... it boasts seemingly every topography known to humans," writes Kang. Noting that the remake is designed to appeal to both American and Chinese audiences, Kang writes that the result is "a creatively squeamish, pokily placed movie by committee that has four credited screenwriters, a slew of hackneyed Disney tropes and an enervating lack of emotional resonance." The critic goes on to write: "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." Of its lead, Kang recognizes Liu's charisma, but notes that the script offers "no depth and meaningful relationships to work with."

Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times that the movie "takes on gender more boldly than it handles warfare," noting that it could use much more of Mulan in action. Director Caro "tends to overshoot and overcut, sometimes to distraction; she fusses up one conversation with swooping shots from different angles," writes Dargis. The critic explains that Caro handles intimacy and action capably, despite a possible overuse of long shots emphasizing "the smallness of the conscripts." Ultimately, Dargis concludes that Mulan's metamorphosis is "complicated," to the movie's credit. "Whether she navigates gender satisfyingly is yet another question, one that will be best answered by the girls and women who yearn for more characters that look like them, speak to them," writes the critic. "Some will find it here; others will take this story and run with it: they will wear its costumes, play with its dolls, and they will rewatch, rethink, remake this tale until it becomes a perfect reflection of their desires."

In Collider, Matt Goldberg writes that the remake feels unique even though it follows some beats of the original Disney version. "It knows where to discard elements of the animated feature, strike out on its own themes, and still retain the story’s power," explains the critic. Goldberg goes on to share, "Freed from the shackles of 'Make it like the other thing, but also add tedious explanations and bad CGI,' Mulan has a life and vibrancy that we haven’t really seen in a live-action Disney movie since 2015’s Cinderella, which also had the confidence to depart from its source material and focus more on lavish production design and costumes." He hopes that, when the pandemic is over, Disney will re-release Caro's film into theaters "because she absolutely made this film with the big screen in mind."

Brian Lowry writes in CNN that Mulan is "good, but not great," adding that the film is "a perfectly reasonable family-viewing investment that’s worth seeing, but not necessarily a must-buy." The critic emphasizes that the structure of the film "not only elevates the girl power theme but also the idea of being deprived of the freedom to pursue one’s rightful path can potentially lead, well, to the dark side." Lowry praises the cast and martial arts stunts, adding that the film is “gorgeously shot” and “overflows with vibrant colors and sweeping action."

In a review for NPR, Justin Chang noted that part of that tangle for the rare Disney PG-13 project came from its attempt to spin "a Chinese legend into family-friendly entertainment" with global appeal. "Mulan feels like a watered-down version of a potentially captivating story. It's not surprising to hear Chinese characters speaking stilted, accented English, which is standard practice for a Hollywood blockbuster set in an Asian country," he wrote. Chang went on to say that he "was more disappointed by how the script treats fairly intuitive cultural ideas — about a person's chi and the importance of family honor — as if they were difficult foreign concepts that needed to be repeatedly explained to the viewer."

Mashable critic Angie Han gave "credit where credit is due," explaining that, "the 2020 Mulan is not one of those Disney live-action remakes that settles for a painstaking beat-by-beat recreation of the original." Han credited Caro and her team for their effort to "reimagine the narrative from the ground up, in a wholly different style and genre, with new characters and subplots and themes, and without some of the most beloved elements of its predecessor (namely, Mushu and the songs)" Yet, while stated that "you can't say it's not trying to do something new," the Disney adaptation is ultimately, "a remake of the 1998 film that reaches for bold choices, but feels too timid to ultimately make them worthwhile."

At SlashFilm, Hoai-Tran Bui shares some similar sentiments about Disney’s latest live-action installment, stating that "for all its visual splendor and deep dramatic weight, isn’t as fierce as a raging fire as it could be." Still, Bui acknowledges that "there’s patina of prestige to Mulan" and that despite "lots of teeth-gnashing" over it dropping narrative elements found in the 1998 film — including its sidekicks and music — "the film doesn’t suffer at all for it." Instead, Bui calls it "a compelling war drama about a woman struggling with her identity, played out in inspiring training montages and smatterings of magical realism." Where it does suffer, she writes, is in its absence of levity as a film "so bent on presenting itself as a serious war drama that its rare moments of comedy feel almost awkwardly slotted in."

Empire critic Beth Webb offers more praise for Caro’s film, declaring that "Niki Caro’s Mulan is not only the best live-action Disney adaptation to date, but also a dazzling, moving, hair-prickling spectacle." Webb heaps praise on the film’s fight choreography, calling one sequence "so meticulously staged that the warriors appear to create their own gravitational pull. Each move is thrilling and pinpointed to the character’s personality, but they also improvise with costume and habitat and are captured in crisp, vibrant detail." Despite having "a thin plot to work with" and a story that sometimes moves so fast it shifts "a little too quickly in tone to feel cohesive," Webb says the movie’s "sole focus on Mulan’s trajectory clears the path for some goosebump-inducing moments of empowerment."