The 400-Word Review: Mulan
By Sean Collier
September 4, 2020
What is there to say about yet another live-action interpretation of an animated Disney flick?
The response is almost as rote as the films themselves. Disney pulls an oversized VHS case off a wood-paneled bookshelf and turns it into a theoretically more nuanced and inevitably longer live-action drama. The masses who view it are temporarily amused, note a few positive updates, bemoan the lack of excised sequences and characters, conclude that it was fine overall and renew their Disney+ subscriptions so that they can still watch the beloved original.
A year later, we barely remember that the remake happened (Does anyone remember “Dumbo” at this point? Neither do I).
The latest story to be sucked into the content vacuum is “Mulan,” the tale of a female soldier in Imperial China disguising her gender to serve in place of her ailing father. Both versions of the tale are loosely based on the life of Hua Mulan, a figure in Chinese folklore (who may or may not have actually existed).
This time, Mulan is played with tenacity and impressive command by Liu Yifei. After a “Fiddler on the Roof” jaunt in the opening act — Mulan is disinterested in marrying up for her family’s sake — her father (Tzi Ma) is conscripted to fight against a marauding army led by the vengeful Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and a powerful, if subjugated, witch (Gong Li).
The live-action “Mulan” skips both the musical numbers and the comic relief, leaving behind a streamlined, uncomplicated war story. There’s a self-seriousness to this effort, as Disney seems determined to craft an unimpeachably earnest depiction of culture and legend; aside from some fantastic maneuvers that recall some of the martial-arts epics Disney is imitating, there is nothing imaginative or indulgent here.
Denied the opportunity to imbue much spectacle into the film, director Niki Caro — best known for the Oscar-nominated 2002 fable “Whale Rider,” itself a small folklore epic set in Caro’s native New Zealand — chooses to emphasize beauty and landscape. Along with cinematographer Mandy Walker, Caro succeeds at making a hundred sweeping vistas both dwarf and amplify her protagonist, as Mulan grows from a product of her country into its guardian.
In that, and in the lovely lead performance, “Mulan” stands out. Due to its dry script and languid pace, however, watching it is a tepid, unremarkable experience. This “Mulan” is like a dream: Curious, beautiful and instantly forgotten.
My Rating: 6/10
“Mulan” is available, for an additional fee, through Disney+.