It’s darn near impossible to review “Mulan” without assessing the histrionics that preceded it. Disney’s live-action remake of its 1998 animated film arrives with heaps of luggage, from the pandemic-fueled release changes to boycotts over the star’s pro-China sentiments. Telling any China-based tale is fraught with land mines as is, given Hollywood’s fealty to Red China. (More on that in a minute) Liu Yifei, who plays the title character, supports the same Hong Kong cops accused of attacking pro-democracy protesters. And, for some, the film’s feminist main character will never be woke enough.
So is the actual film any good? Well, yes, in that homogenized Disney way where they throw so much money at an intellectual property it’s impossible to resist. Just don’t expect to think about it long after the end credits roll.
Yifei plays Mulan, a budding warrior well versed in mastering her Chi, or the life energy flowing through her body. Chi is a critical element of Eastern culture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, but here it acts like something Yoda might backward talk about. “Good for you, Chi is!”
Mulan’s fighting skills could serve the Emperor’s army, especially when a new threat led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) threatens their kingdom. Alas, only men are conscripted to fight in the Emperor’s army. That means Mulan’s frail father (Tzi Ma) must suit up … unless Mulan disguises herself as a man and takes his place.
It’s “Yentl,” but with swords and mystical powers.
For some stretches, “Mulan” soars, especially when its imaginative action scenes flood our senses. The film’s third act features a score of clever fights, although they never rise to the heights of modern Asian features like “Hero” or “House of Flying Daggers.”
The film’s supporting cast, including action superstars like Jet Li (the Emperor) and Donnie Yen (Commander Tung), elevate the material. Yen’s quiet dignity, used better during “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” plays well enough here.
Ironically, the most dramatic tension comes from Mulan’s clash with Xianniang, a shape-shifter played with panache by Gong Li. Their unlikely gender bond, and battles, suggest what “Mulan” might have been with a more nuanced screenplay.
Xianniang didn’t exist in the original “Mulan,” and her banter with the title character captures the era’s glaring sexism. Still, they offer a diversion from the often-inert exchanges with other characters.
“Mulan” can be breathtaking, what with its candy-colored vistas and sweeping camera shots. Disney ladled $200 million onto its prized property, and every penny can be seen on screen.
The film doesn’t flood us with CGI, or it does so with a delicacy that belies the massive production scale. There’s an old-fashioned sweep to the cinematic canvas, one that’s rare and refreshing in our digital age.
Too bad we never fully invest in Mulan’s journey.
The stilted nature of the dialogue, the formality of both the military Mulan joins, and the cultural formalities, make it hard for raw emotions to emerge. The screenplay, by a quartet of scribes, doesn’t help. That’s a shame because the raw material exists for “Mulan” to thrive even in the quietest moments.
Yifei, who proves both lovely and lethal, appears up to the film’s considerable challenge. So, too, is her father, played by Ma (“24,” “The Man in the High Castle”). Yet their early scenes together play out as perfunctory, or even time filler.
One of the story’s biggest moments feels rushed, as if Disney realized audiences want more blockbuster action above all. The studio may be right, but it leaves “Mulan” as a brief sensation, hardly the impact of the 1998 film.
The live-action “Mulan” strips away much of what stood out about the source material, namely the songs and wacky side characters.
That appears to be both calculated and wise. Remember Will Smith’s awkward singing, and swirling, the genie from the recent “Aladdin” remake?
This quasi-remake hews closer to the Chinese ballad that initially inspired Disney animators. And, once again, Hollywood strained to appease Chinese censors. One sequence from the animated film saw Mulan cutting her long hair to appear more boyish. That moment angered Chinese audiences for being historically inaccurate, the film’s producer said recently. So out it went.
The original film’s love story is altered dramatically here, in the very woke mode of today where women shouldn’t be defined by their cisgender bonds.
Here, there’s a spark between Mulan and Yoson An’s Chen Honghui, but it’s hardly a roaring flame. More like a campfire splashed with a bucket of lake water.
“Mulan” deserves credit for blazing a partially fresh trail, unlike the shot-for-shot moments from the “Lion King” remake that used computers to simulate a live-action experience.
Still, when “Mulan’s” character beats keep taking a back seat to the action, we’re left with an amusement park ride and little more.
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