If there’s one thing I want from Disney’s live-action remakes is for them to make the film different from the original animated movie. If it’s a straight shot-for-shot remake, then what’s the point? I liked the Aladdin remake because it did just that and Mulan was set to do the same. Based on the beloved 1998 animated classic, this is a more serious and “true to the original lore” take on the iconic character. However, different doesn’t automatically mean better… With a pandemic going on, Disney decided to gamble and see how well a straight to streaming in the U.S. (for a price!) release would fare. Mulan may very well determine the new trend of large scale movie releases. So how does this movie hold up? Unfortunately, not so great.
Directed by Niki Caro, Mulan (played by actress Yifei Liu) is about a young Chinese woman trying to find her place in the world. When an army led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his sorceress Xianniang (Li Gong) attack mainland China, Mulan disguises herself as a man to take the place of her father, played by film veteran Tzi Ma. I have to say, the start of this movie was not a great one. The characters seemed bland and stiff and the editing was choppy. If you have a character talking over themselves, it’s not a good sign. Mulan also had trouble finding the tone it wanted. After being touted as a more serious and action-packed take, it starts off surprisingly goofy. The sisterly relationship was charming but the matchmaker scene was too over the top and just didn’t fit at all in this film.
A departure from the original is the introduction of Chi, a sort of universal force that lives within energy but can only be harnessed by a few and only men are “allowed” to use. It’s an interesting concept, although it’s pretty much just The Force, but one that isn’t fleshed out very well. The sorcerer uses it for her magic and shapeshifting, but it can also be used in… well, fighting better? With the Wuxia style of film making, it seemed like that was just how they fought, but Mulan is the only one said to be using Chi to fight like that. It’s just not very clear and muddies the film.
The pacing of this movie is all over the place. It feels rushed at the onset and many of Mulan’s moments don’t take the time they to feel impactful. I want to feel things as her character grows, but the film itself doesn’t give me the time to do so. All that being said, Mulan does have a strong second act. Once she gets to the training camp, the movie really opens up. Her interactions with her fellow soldiers feel authentic and real, especially with Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and Honghui (Yoson An). These characters, along with the other soldiers she befriends, really connect with each other and flesh the world out a lot better. It also allowed for Yifei Liu to stretch her acting muscles a bit. Her performance felt really flat in the beginning, even in the “funnier” moments, but in the second act, she looked very natural in her acting. They strike a better tone here as well finding a way to balance humor with the more serious notes of the film and I wish we got more of this.
The side story of Böri Khan and Xianniang is also a bit lackluster. While they and their army bring in some really cool action set pieces, it’s not enough to cover up their ‘by the numbers’ story. They both want revenge, Böri Khan against the Emporer (Jet Li), and Xianniang for being banished because of her use of Chi. It’s just too bland and doesn’t add much to the overall story. Jason Scott Lee is pretty wooden as the primary antagonist with only one real emotion, but it feels like it’s the writing rather than his performance. Xianniang I feel does a good job relaying the tortured and angry sorcerer, but almost reluctantly.
I really wanted more out of Mulan, it was one of my favorite movies growing up. It’s fine to go for a more serious tone, but Disney missed the mark here. Most of the film is flat and almost boring at times. While they find a good balance in the second act, it doesn’t carry over to the third and ultimately makes for an okay movie overall. Not great, but not terrible. If you have family or friends you can safely be with (who are willing to split the $30 cost with you) then you might enjoy it. But you would be better off waiting until December 4th when it will be available for everyone with a Disney+ subscription.