“Mulan” is the latest in Disney’s string of live- action remakes of its animated classics, and it’s perhaps the most frustrating yet.
Whereas “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” were downright awful, and “Aladdin” was better than it had any right to be, “Mulan” falls in that no man’s zone in between, where it has some interesting ideas and a few minor improvements over the animated original, but falls short of being anything remotely interesting or exciting. It just sort of exists. While that normally wouldn’t be a problem, there’s enough here — buried under a plethora of bad decisions — that holds it back from being an engaging movie.
From the opening scene, featuring beautiful multi-story community filled with dozens of characters in elaborately-detailed costumes, to the expansive vistas featured throughout the brisk 110-minute runtime, to the final shots of the Imperial City, “Mulan” is one of the most breathtaking and brilliant visual splendors that Disney has released in many years. Of its ever-growing catalog of live action remakes, “Mulan” is certainly the most beautiful and the only one to come close to capturing the majestic visuals of its source material. There’s nary a scene that isn’t breathtaking — especially when viewed at home in 4K with Dolby Vision. Once the movie arrives on 4K UHD blu-ray, it will serve as reference material for enthusiasts.
The visuals represent the only redeeming value of “Mulan.” Everything else is hindered by a compromised script, poor acting and bad action. The villains are undeveloped, Mulan’s journey is half-baked and it feels like there’s little consequence for anything that happens on screen.
The biggest mistake the script makes is turning “Mulan” into some sort of superhero origin story. The movie sheds many of the more fantastical elements of the original — including its extremely underrated musical numbers — for a more grounded take, but then throws all of that out the window to justify Mulan’s combat prowess with use of her “Chi.” Her power only manifests itself in the same over-choreographed kick that can redirect arrows and spears. You know this will come to play in the end, because the movie constantly has to reinforce this act over and over again.
The action scenes look like they’re trying to recreate the wire-fu magic of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or Hong Kong action films, but never manage to pull it off without looking like cheap recreations. What few of the action scenes there are in the film are designed to make Mulan look powerful, but do so by making everyone else look useless, as the background extras stand around and wait to be attacked.
Mulan’s story should be an easy tale to tell without falling into familiar trappings, but the movie never quite makes it there. Story beats happen because the story demands it. There’s no character development and little justification for what happens. Supporting characters have no depth, and make decisions based solely on the plot’s requirements. The script tries to give a villain character depth by giving her the age-old, “we’re not so different” speech, but it feels cliche and amounts to nothing in the end. It’s confusing, because the movie has enough breathing room to develop its characters, but wastes so much time on it setting up Mulan’s decision to run away that it has to rush through everything else to get to the climactic battle.
Many will undoubtedly be upset over the major changes from its source material, and that’s understandable. But from another perspective, some of the biggest issues of previous live action remakes — like “The Lion King” — have been that they served as slaves to what came before, and added nothing new. “Mulan” is more than happy to toss aside the animated trappings to try to create a new tone, but still embraces them all too often. One of the major cruxes of Mulan’s decision is the threat of marriage that hangs over her. This is 2020, women characters should not be driven by domestication. It doesn’t help that Mulan actress Liu Yifei can’t sell any of her internal conflict. Eddie Murphy’s talking dragon, Mushu, may be gone, and “Make a Man Out of You” might be missing, but the inclusion of those elements could not save another soulless, lifeless remake that still manages to come short of at least matching the animated classic.
“Mulan” is a movie that could be enjoyed on a casual Saturday afternoon, but not for the $30 that Disney commands to watch on Disney+. It will be available for free in December.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.