The money-minting powerhouse that is the modern-day Walt Disney Company has been on a ruthless streak as of late. One where reimagining established IP in between steady Star Wars and Marvel adventures have become the commonplace must-sees for audiences. While the non-franchise fare is conveniently plopped to the company’s admittedly imperfect streaming home. Even after 10 months, it’s yet to reach its full potential. Well before we had Disney+, we had a still-steady mix of the big guns, and the little pistols (think the underrated Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day). And for every favorite that dared and succeeded to be very different, the duds are hard to overlook. The studio’s formula proved that nostalgia-themed junk food sells well, with varying results. The latest, a live-action remake of 1998’s Mulan, tries to intertwine all three, winning out in style, but not in execution.
Set against the backdrop of Imperial China, and parts of New Zealand for the sake of tax credits, Niki Caro’s live-action version of Mulan greets you immediately into a joyous old-world realm that bears familiarity. If you’ve seen enough Chinese fantasy films, then the aesthetics are similar. In a content, quiet village resides the Hua clan. They’re traditional as traditional can be, except for the eldest daughter, our title character (Yifei Liu), who’s desperate for independence and freedom. And she sees that manifest in the form of special powers formed by chi, and a strong sense of goodwill. Both of which mature alongside her, her nonconformist streak building.
What Mulan’s retired army captain father (Tzi Ma) and steadfast mother (Rosalind Chao) wants is for her to settle down into marriage and promote loyalty within her village. She makes it deliberately clear in not wanting to fall for the trap. And yet when ol’ dad is drummed up to serve once more, she’s ensnared in a different spot with an equal chance of zero escape. Enter the Emperor (Jet Li) who calls the first-born male of each family to join up in retaliation against the rebel Rouran, a proponent for evil led by the snidely Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Fearing for her weak father, Mulan sneaks off to take his place in one of the better crossdressing stories ever told. Or in this case, retold? Yes, and hesitantly too.
This version of Mulan promised grandiose adventure and extravagant action sequences in the trailers, raising the stakes while staying true to the original. While all of that is an accurate statement, trying to merge all three is where it goes awry. The bar was set just a little higher after last summer’s Lion King threw all expectations out the window, in a split between critics and fans. Obviously just leaning on the technology while making the same film twice, that wears thin. Regrettably, what Mulan couldn’t promise is the open shot to be different without being cliched. 2016’s Pete’s Dragon is still the crowned champion, Cinderella an eager runner-up.
Caro, whom I’ve admired in telling intimate stories since McFarland USA, makes no small effort of branching out in a huge way. She easily adds depth, and an increased womanly perspective to the story and toward Liu’s lead performance. That alone is commendable, but it lends too little to distinguish this adaptation from its animated counterpart. Never mind the fact that there’s not necessarily a Mushu, though we do see some form of a spirit guide. Nor the lack of sufficient songs, even if Harry Gregson-Williams effortlessly works in well-known strains of “Honor to Us All” and “Reflection” throughout his stirring score. Why we need two versions of the latter classic tune over the end credits is well beyond my perception. If that’s what needed to be done to support a more mature approach, then clearly it could have all been done with greater subtlety.
What the film did need to change completely is its own grab bag of inconsistency. Husband and wife writing duo Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, well-versed action scribes best recognized for the cozily enjoyable 2010s Planet of the Apes trilogy, both struggle to open Mulan’s world to live-action. That does not make Caro’s job any easier, as she navigates through every key piece of scenery with both eyes open. All while memorable scenes that fans of the original will recall verbatim are either poorly rehashed, eschewed, or skipped completely. Again, in favor of eye-candy fight scenes, passionately shot by Mandy Walker (The Mountain Between Us) that admittedly still looked exciting, tense, even awesome.
That does also mean that characters, familiar and otherwise, can’t quite reach their full potential. Scott Lee’s prime antagonist bears menace without mercy, but he cannot hold a candle to the reserved fury of Miguel Ferrer’s Shan Yu. His second-in-command and conniving witch Xianniang (a chipper Gong Li) looks on as a crude mediator to influence Mulan in the wrong direction. The sidekick recruits Chien-Po (Doua Moua), Ling (Jimmy Wong), Yao (Chen Tang), can best be described as loose-fitting parodies of their cartoon variants, they don’t necessarily fit amid Caro’s aim for a more serious picture. The new romantic interest/army commander Tung (a slightly underappreciated Donnie Yen) fares a little better, rising to the challenge and lifting Liu’s confidence. As does Ma, coming off a fantastic turn last year in The Farewell. I would have ached for a little more of his character, even if the source material didn’t call for it.
It took a little time to personally warm up to Liu in the lead. Making a near-flawless Western film debut, she strides along with both dexterity and optimism intact. Considering all major differences here, Liu never once squanders her abilities, making the character her own. Thinking more in terms of the original folklore, there’s at least a trifle more authenticity in play. That alone had me nodding in approval in spots. And Caro is at her most focused when it’s only Liu’s performance she must guide. As we see her fight, flee, even fly in figurative terms, the bond this director has toward her top billing star is perhaps the only consistent thing to be found. You watch Liu, you’re seeing an assertive individual looking to dismantle the ceiling of gender norms in combat personnel. And remodel a princess character for the modern-day generation. Both happen to come naturally.
I was overall let down some by this new spin on a Disney fan favorite. Speaking as a lifelong Disneyphile, the disappointment may sting longer than it has any reason to. Mulan remains a towering figure of always fighting for one’s independence, keeping personal honor and sacrifice in mind. And this live-action adaptation really tries its best to build on its predecessor, only to stumble throughout on matter of tone. For a PG-13 film, it doesn’t do much; it’s all still rather vanilla. It aimed so high to be a serious four-quadrant event pic. And yet it barely squeaks by in escaping the shadow of its animated equal.
It’s not completely a terrible entry in the studio’s long line of recent reboots, but there’s so much room for improvement. A week may have passed since the film debuted online with the added fee of $30, a lot of folks have already taken the plunge. Those who are still on the fence, hopefully, this will help. I personally have no desire to revisit this hodgepodge of ideas any time soon. Provided you’re a bigger fan of the original than I am (it is still a classic), and have lower expectations, you will have the most fun. (C; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Mulan is currently streaming on Disney+ with a $29.99 Premier Access fee; available to all existing customers on December 4; rated PG-13 for sequences of violence; 115 minutes.