No Mushu, no songs, no problem. It’s an empowering action spectacle that, although it stumbles out of the gate, is held aloft by its progressive depiction of life in the barracks, lush pageantry and committed actors who who hit more than they miss.
Is it worth $29.99? Yes
By now we’ve gotten used to the ritual that surrounds the release of the live-action version of a popular Disney animated film. (Never the unpopular ones. I’m not holding my breath for a star-studded reimagining of “The Black Cauldron.”) The Mouse House’s marketing machine goes into overdrive selling a more mundane, CGI’d-to-the-max version of a story that was special precisely because of how the animators used the medium to tell it. And yet, the sales pitch has reaped dividends. It turns out moviegoers were willing to leave the comfort of their home theaters to see Emma Watson’s fitfully engaging Belle, watch Bill Murray pick up a paycheck voicing a digital Baloo, and witness Will Smith try and fail to one-up Robin Williams’ Genie up on the big screen.
So if it looks like I’m going easy on “Mulan,” Disney’s latest attempt to turn viewers’ nostalgia for a decades-old property into cold, hard cash, it’s not just because the entertainment landscape for consumers has changed considerably over the past six months. The coronavirus pandemic has led the studio to take drastic actions, first postponing the movie’s spring release date and then scrapping its U.S. theatrical engagement in favor of dropping the film on its Disney+ streaming service. For a measly $29.99 premium fee (presuming you’re already a Disney+ subscriber). Is it worth it? Yes, though the hefty streaming fee is still highway robbery.
I won’t go into detail about how this feels like bullying individual viewers who do not subscribe to the streaming platform, and who only want to see the film once, into shelling out more money just to access the new release. But as much as this reviewer would like to attack the greedy Mouse by pointing to yet another subpar product, the fact of the matter is that this sword-and-sorcery yarn, set in a picturesque China that looks like it’s been scrubbed clean, is a pretty decent remake that knows what it sets out to do. It works, more often than not, because it’s not chained to its predecessor, a trait that the better examples of this batch of lavish productions share.
Gone are the catchy Matthew Wilder/David Zippel tunes that propelled the story, based on the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan,” of a dutiful and headstrong daughter who disguises herself as a man to enlist in her older, frail father’s place. Eddie Murphy’s sassy dragon sidekick Mushu that the title heroine’s ancestors entrust to watch over her? He’s MIA, as is Cri-Kee, the comic-relief cricket and luck charm. LGBTQ audiences who championed the film’s high queer content? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the movie downplays the cross-dressing elements that made the original feel like such a leap forward in representation.
But despite the absence of so many elements that endeared fans to the 1998 feature, the new “Mulan” holds together nicely, thanks in large part to director Niki Caro, While the New Zealander behind the Oscar-nominated coming-of-age drama “Whale Rider” is not exactly an inspired choice, she’s taken over the reins with storytelling efficiency, a keen eye for attractive imagery and a willingness to pay tribute to Chinese culture.
It’s actually this devotion to its setting that holds the film back during a pretty rough first act. Working from a screenplay credited to Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, Caro sees fit to have the characters explain out loud every custom that Western audiences might not be familiar with, thus making parts of the movie feel like something one would see at Epcot’s China pavilion. Why the handholding? The filmmakers don’t appear to trust viewers’ ability to grasp the cultural differences, so they overcompensate, in the process weighing down what should have been a brisk narrative.
Equally one-note and basic is the film’s depiction of Mulan’s town, reduced here to a color-coordinated group of small-minded people who collectively look down on the protagonist’s spunky disregard for decorum and gender roles. The animated film’s Fa household has been replaced by the Hua quartet: Mulan (Crystal Rao as a girl, Yifei Liu as a young adult), dad Zhou (the ubiquitous Tzi Ma), mom Li (Rosalind Chao) and younger sis Xiu (Elena Askin as a young’un, Xana Tang as a young woman). The early scenes, as Mulan prepares for and meets the local matchmaker, closely follow the original movie, with distracting CGI and broad gags replacing the cartoon’s more effective slapstick humor. At the dinner table, the stilted dialogue, hammering home Mulan’s duty to bring honor to her clan, make the comparatively more subtle father/daughter exchanges in the animated film feel like the height of sophistication.
Okay, so “Mulan” gets off to a rickety start. But stick with it, because once the action shifts to the training camp, the movie finds its footing. Mulan’s romantic interest this time around is not her superior officer, but handsome boy next door Honghui (the charismatic Yoson An). Caro takes pains to ensure their adversarial relationship, complicated by Mulan’s efforts to keep up her XY act, is not drowned out by the film’s depiction of warfare, violent enough to nab a PG-13 rating, but nowhere near as disquieting as the off-screen carnage hinted at in the previous film. The action sequences in the new film are an uneven affair, somewhat hobbled by a conspicuous attempt to soften the blow for matinee crowds, or in this instance Disney+ subscribers, but not without moments of splendor that recall Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “Curse of the Golden Flower”) and Ridley Scott circa “Kingdom of Heaven.” There’s even a late-in-the-game shout out to “Kill Bill Vol. 1.”
Spearheading the rebellious attempts to overthrow the Emperor (a nearly unrecognizable Jet Li) are the nefarious and vindictive Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee, a casting bull’s-eye) and Xianniang (former Yimou muse Gong Li), Böri’s shape-shifting enchantress slave. She does her master’s bidding but not-so-secretly yearns to chart her own path. (Whatever you do, don’t call her a witch.) With echoes of Ursula and even Anakin Skywalker, Xianniang is a character compelling enough to make you wish she weren’t such a blatant plot device. Still, her scenes with Mulan are layered in a way not always afforded to Disney villains, even though some of her lines are borrowed from “The Empire Strikes Back.”
A longer running time gives Caro the opportunity to expand her heroine’s coming-out process. To her credit, she makes no bones about it: coming out is exactly what Mulan showing her true self feels like. That leads to something very interesting: the director stages how her fellow Fifth Battalion soldiers handle the news just like a modern-day military unit would grapple with having a member come out as LGBTQ. It’s at this point that this “Mulan” heads off in its own direction, and even if the narrative ultimately doesn’t stray far from what’s come before, Caro does enough to justify this pricey remake’s existence from a creative standpoint. It might have been greenlit predominantly to keep Disney shareholders satisfied and expand the studio’s catalog, but there’s enough of its protagonist’s independent spirit, including a fairly ambiguous closing shot, to make the formula go down easy.