If you’re wondering how the new “Mulan” stacks up against its animated predecessor or even the more recent Disney live-action remakes, this might not be the review you’re looking for. Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the ￼￼original 1998 animated feature. And I haven’t watched any of the latest not-so-warmly received live-action reheats. But I have seen Disney’s new $200 million “Mulan”. You know, the $30 ‘stream at home’ version. And guess what – it’s not bad. Is it worth the high price tag to watch right now? I’ll let you decide.
“Mulan” comes from director Niki Caro and the writing team of Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek. Their retelling of this inspirational tale aims at capturing the spirit of the original animated film while also making meaningful choices that set their version apart. The way it sounds, the more recent live-action remakes went to great lengths to follow their originals. “Mulan” 2020 attempts to carve its own identity with a more realistic vision, no songs and no celebrity-voiced comic sidekick. The results aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty darned impressive.
Liu Yifei plays Mulan, the spirited eldest daughter of honored war veteran Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma). The two have a loving bond with the father aware that there is something special about his daughter. But his deep devotion to archaic traditions leaves Mulan bound by the expectations of her family, village, and culture. “A daughter brings honor through marriage“, Hua Zhou lectures. “Your job is to bring honor to the family.” Yet in this world of ‘honor’ through marriage, she can’t even choose her own husband.
Meanwhile on the outskirts of the empire a warlord with a grudge named Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) begins attacking imperial garrisons. Lee is a striking presence, with the look and the snarl of a menacing villain. Unfortunately he’s the victim of an all-too-familiar problem in modern blockbusters – bad guys with hardly any depth and the barest motivations. Basically Böri Khan sets out to quench his thirst for revenge by killing the emperor and becoming the new ruler of the kingdom.￼ Not the most original ￼crusade, but he and his soldiers sure look cool carrying it out.
With the attacks intensifying, the Emperor (played with stoic distinction by Jet Li) calls for one male member of every family to join the fight to quell the enemy invasion. Hua Zhou, the lone male in their family, prepares to join the war effort despite his failing health. Knowing her father’s chances of survival are slim, Mulan takes his sword and armor and sneaks away, posing as his son and joining the Fifth Battalion led by esteemed Commander Tung (played by Chinese screen legend Donnie Yen). It’s her first venture into the male-dominated world and if her ruse is discovered she’ll have more to worry about than shame and dishonor.
The bulk of the film’s second act concentrates on the training of the young soldiers. Mulan is easily the most skilled warrior in her regiment, but ￼showing her abilities would draw too much attention and risk exposing her secret. Therefore much of this segment is spent with Mulan concealing her identity from the other recruits especially the curious and charismatic Chen (Yoson An). What’s missing is the emotional toil. There is certainly an interesting thematic conflict between loyalty to duty and embracing one’s true self. But we rarely see Mulan wrestling with it on an emotional level. We get a few of those scenes and they work really well. We just get too few of them.
From there the film moves to an action-filled final third. Surprisingly “Mulan” never quite reaches the scale I was expecting. This could be due to misguided expectations on my part, but the film isn’t a huge sprawling ￼epic. It has all the dressings, but when it comes to the action the film’s snappy pace never keeps it in one place for too long. For that reason some of the action scenes are unexpectedly short and tame, perhaps the result of being a Disney property.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t stunning images throughout “Mulan”. Caro and her DP Mandy Walker shoot some exquisite shots both when filming the diverse landscapes or capturing the gravity-defying fight sequences. One showdown set inside a tight hallway is shot with incredible style and energy. Another fight through some bamboo scaffolding ￼features several ingenious camera tricks and wonderful framing. At the same time Oscar winner Grant Major’s production design and Bina Daigeler’s costumes add something interesting to every composition.
Cast-wise Liu Yifei shows nice range moving from a rambunctious rebel by nature to a battle-ready warrior exemplifying courage and leadership. She does good with what emotional material she’s given and her physicality is unquestioned. Donnie Yen and Jet Li are great presences but get little opportunity to show the martial arts prowess what made them such stars. Perhaps the most compelling character is an exiled sorceress named Xianniang (Li Gong). She’s a servant and weapon of Böri Khan who doesn’t take kindly to being called a “witch”. There are hints of a rich and thoughtful backstory, but sadly all we get are crumbs – fleeting references to a pained past that I would love to have known more about.
I can see “Mulan” pulling people in a variety of directions. Lovers of the animated original may take issue with some of its creative choices. Those looking forward to its more realistic spin may find it too restrained and safe. For me, the film’s strengths definitely outweigh its shortcomings. “Mulan” pulls us into a vibrant and fascinating world while telling a story full of inspiration and relevance. At the same time I found myself constantly wanting it to go further. Did being a Disney property hold it back? Were my expectations out of whack? I’m not sure. So I end up still unable to tell you if the movie is worth the $30 price tag. Once again, I’ll let you decide. “Mulan” is now available exclusively on Disney+.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS