Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
1 hour 55 minutes · Streaming on Disney+ Premier Access
Disney goes to the well once more with Mulan, another update on one of their beloved ’90s animations that doesn’t supersede the original but at least gets points for trying to go about things in a relatively creative way.
Unlike last year’s Aladdin and The Lion King, which were soulless cash grabs that lifelessly tried to recreate classic moments from their predecessors, this new version of Mulan feels more like a modern reimagining of the legend of Hua Mulan rather than a mindless remake of the 1998 Disney film.
Gone are the Broadway-style music numbers and cutesy sidekicks, replaced instead by PG-13 wuxia (a term for martial arts stories set in ancient China) action and gorgeously lush set design inspired by genre classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.
Set in imperial China, the storyline follows the courageous and deft warrior Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), whose parents Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) and Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) foist matchmakers on her so she can find a husband who will tame her wild spirit. Those plans are put on hold when Rouran warriors, led by the fearsome Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his enslaved witch Xianniang (Gong Li), make their way towards the Hua’s village. An edict is put forth where a man from each family must join the fight against Khan’s army but the elderly Zhou is at risk for serious injury or even death should he offer his services to the military. To spare her father, Mulan poses as a young man and sets off to train as a soldier with the knowledge that her gender deception could be punishable by death.
Originally slated to grace screens nationwide back in March, Mulan is one of many victims of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. After months of delay, it now debuts on Disney+ with a $30 surcharge for “Premier Access.” While this is a responsible and sensible business decision on their part, it’s a shame we likely won’t see this on the big screen any time soon since this is the best looking live-action remake that Disney has put forth yet. Transfixing images like the Emperor’s opulent, gold-plated throne or a collapsing avalanche with its ensuing fog of powder snow just don’t quite have the same power when watching at home, unless your TV is on par with the digital projection found in the cineplex.
While director Niki Caro makes some smart choices when it comes to action and imagery, the biggest missed opportunity here is in the depth of the storytelling and thematic material. Too often Caro and her quartet of screenwriters take the easy way out and settle for simple characterization on behalf of the protagonist and other supporting players. While the animated version of Mulan was also a fierce warrior, she doesn’t start out that way and has to steadily train her way up the ranks. Comparatively, Liu’s Mulan is already a powerful fighter from the beginning with the aid of a magical level of chi that resembles The Force from Star Wars. One could easily make several parallels between this Mulan and Rey from the Disney-era Star Wars trilogy.
While most of the performances serve the film well, Liu is not always as compelling as she needs to be in the title role. Her physicality and poise is often spot-on, but she plays the character almost too stoically, offering little insight into Mulan’s inner world. Other actors, like the inimitable Donnie Yen as Commander Tung or Tzi Ma from last year’s excellent The Farewell, tend to fare better in their respective roles.
While I appreciate Disney’s push for representation by casting all Asian or Asian-American performers, I wish they had gone a bit farther and just had the characters speaking Mandarin instead English. With Parasite winning Best Picture earlier this year, I would suspect that the subtitle barrier isn’t quite as imposing as it once was.
Nevertheless, Mulan is a fine introduction to wuxia films that will hopefully inspire audiences to seek out better entries in the genre.
New movies this weekend
Available for rental is Antebellum, a horror film starring Janelle Monáe and Jena Malone about an author who finds herself trapped in a nightmarish reality during the Underground Railroad period and must find a way to break free.
Streaming on Netflix is The Devil All the Time, a psychological thriller starring Tom Holland and Bill Skarsgård about a series of suspicious characters whose storylines converge on the backdrop of a small Ohio town.