Eventually Disney is going to run out of animated films to remake and be forced to come up with an original idea, but that day is not today.
“Mulan” is the live-action remake of the 1998 animated film of the same name, based on “The Ballad of Mulan” legend. The film stars Liu Yifei in the title role, as a young woman in rural China who pretends to be a man in order to take her father’s place in the Imperial Army. Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, and Jet Li appear in supporting roles as Niki Caro directs.
The “Mulan” remake had its share of bumps and blockades before finally reaching audiences, including several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lead actress Liu Yifei (a Chinese-born American citizen) supporting the police and Chinese government in the Hong Kong protests. Those on top of the announcement that this remake would be more in-line with the Mulan legend and not the original film (which meant no songs or talking dragons), angered and confused Disney fans. The cherry on top is this is the most expensive film ever directed by a woman (clocking in at $200 million) and won’t even get a theatrical release in the United States (it is a premium $30 rental on Disney+), so this is just a production full of question marks. And is it worth all the trouble and hype? I mean, no.
As Fa Mulan, Yifei is fine. She keeps the quiet demeanor that would be required of a woman impersonating a male soldier, however there is nothing really captivating or special about her screen presence. I really couldn’t give very many adjectives to describe her character, or any characters here for that matter, and that is just one of the many areas where this film falls flat both on its own and compared to the original. The rest of the cast is solid, even though some lines (and seemingly all of Jet Li’s dialogue?) have awkward post-dubbing.
With $200 million to play with, Niki Caro has constructed a film that mostly looks great, with huge sets and sprawling battle sequences. From what I read about the production and what it looks like on-screen, much of the shoot was practical effects, so when we see dozens upon dozens of soldiers sprinting into armed conflict, that is all happening and you feel the adrenaline. Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker play with the camera, spinning it as bodies fall or weaving it between sparring men, and it certainly makes this one of the better-looking of the Disney live-action remakes.
The score by Harry Gregson-Williams is probably the standout here, having some nice epic moments but mostly nuanced (taking many beats from the original’s “Reflection” song). The original “Mulan” earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (back when they separated comedy and dramatic music) and this could very well follow suit.
The film’s biggest issues come from both what it left out from the original and what it replaced those things with. The original film featured great songs (who doesn’t love “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” or “True to Your Heart?”) and a scene-stealing Eddie Murphy voicing Mulan’s loyal dragon Mushu. This film opted to stay closer to the original story, so it makes sense that talking mythical creatures and soldiers breaking out into song wouldn’t fit the tone; ok fine. However they added a magical witch assisting the bad guys army (which aren’t even Huns led by Shan Yu, another seemingly needless change) and Mulan is followed by a phoenix, a sign of her ancestors watching over her. Neither of those are based in reality either, so it begs the question: who were these changes made for? Also now Mulan’s specialness and skills come from her relationship with Qi (ch’i), which is literally this film’s version of The Force from “Star Wars;” it’s just lazy.
The 2020 “Mulan” remake is solid enough on its own merit. It has fine acting and impressive set pieces, but I just don’t know who this film is really for. Fans of the original won’t like the creative liberties Caro and the screenwriters have taken, modern children likely won’t get too immersed in a PG-13 battle epic, and history buffs like me can’t even watch it from that lens. It is just another film-by-committee blockbuster that seems to be plaguing the industry, and since it is so instantly forgettable (I saw it under an hour ago and only remember highlights), it is certainly not worth the $30 Disney is charging on-top of the Disney+ monthly rate. In December the film will be made available “for free” to all subscribers, and maybe then this is worth checking out just to cross it off you Disney remake bingo board; but until then, Mulan can pack it up, go home, she’s through.
Critics Rating: 5/10