The Mulan remake is admirable but misses the mark twice

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The Mulan remake is admirable but misses the mark twice

There’s nothing wrong, I think, with this idea that Disney has been running with for the last few years: adapting their animated properties into large-scale live-action blockbusters is probably not the best way to diversify the output, but diversification has always seemed less important than selling merchandise and making audiences pay for the same thing three or four times. By hiring interesting, idiosyncratic directors and giving them enough freedom to rework the existing properties, Disney could breathe new life into these stories — but why do that when you can spend so much money making something that slavishly follows the beats of the original while also stripping away the freedom that comes with animation? The problems with Mulan aren’t even specifically Mulan’s — they’re the same problems that befell Aladdin and The Lion King and every other one of these low-risk, high-reward ventures.

It must be said that Mulan remains the biggest risk taken by Disney in this whole process, mainly because the original Mulan, while generally well-regarded, is not one of the pillars of Disney’s image these days. It’s also a historical drama set thousands of years ago in a world where no one is white — which would in itself be a financial gamble if it wasn’t for the fact that China is rapidly overtaking the United States as the most important cinematic market in the world. That makes Mulan’s gamble mainly a creative one (pre-pandemic, at the very least), which is doubly complicated by the fact that director Niki Caro and Disney in general have decided to sand off almost all of the comedic, cartoonish edges contained in the original film.

What we ultimately have here is a historical blockbuster with shades of wuxia and martial arts that feels torn between its desire to upsell the lush, grandiose setting and its desire to be a Disney movie that your average child can follow along with easily. Mulan is, above all else, a product of its time and of the bizarre landscape that commercial filmmaking finds itself in these days — and that’s even discounting the fact that the film is entirely bypassing theatres thanks to COVID-19.

Mulan (Liu Yifei) is one of two daughters born to Hua Zhou (Tsi Ma), a decorated war hero who is now too old and beat up to continue life as a soldier. For Hua Zhou, the ultimate honour would be that his daughters make exemplary wives, but Mulan, headstrong and tempestuous, has more interest in traditionally male pursuits. When the Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that every family will send one man into the army, Mulan disguises herself as a man to prevent her father from being drafted. Under the assumed identity of Hua Jun, Mulan trains under Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) to fight off the Rouran hordes led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and a shapeshifting witch (Gong Li) — all the while trying to keep her real identity under wraps.

This version excises the wacky dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, the songs and the more cartoonish supporting characters in favour of a more staid war epic in the vein of John Woo’s Red Cliff. Though trailers promised wuxia and other martial arts, they wind up being a very small part of the whole of Mulan — and an underwhelming one, to boot, considering Caro’s relative inexperience in the world of martial arts direction. (Nearly every fight scene is edited choppily and pieced together approximately, which says less about Caro and more about what the ostensible focus of the thing was.) Taking Mulan into more dramatic realms isn’t a bad idea in itself. After all, I spent half of this review arguing that Disney should take more chances when making these movies. It’s that the film’s quadrant-pleasing approach prevents it from having actual dramatic depth. Instead, the film settles on dramatic depth as a surface style, which makes it periodically laborious at best.

That having been said, Mulan remains one of the better-realized films of Disney’s live-action renaissance. It’s extremely well-cast, for one; martial arts purists may be disappointed in the relative lack of action from Donnie Yen and Jet Li, but they’re well-utilized by the film, and Yifei is a strong lead considering she does most of the heavy lifting. It’s also rather visually beautiful, more colourful and opulent than many blockbusters of its ilk. One has to appreciate the fact that, despite its seriousness, it stops short of spattering everything with mud and calling it realism. Perhaps the best thing you can say about Mulan is that it isn’t a shot-for-shot remake — it just comes with a whole other load of problems. ■Mulan is streaming on DisneyPlus (for $34.99 on top of the monthly or annual subscription fee) as of Sept. 4. Watch the trailer here:

Mulan 2020 remake by Niki Caro, starring Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee

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