A film review by Craig J. Koban December 11 2020, 

MULAN (2020) jj

2020, PG-13, 115 mins.

Liu Yifei as Hua Mulan  /  Yoson An as Chen Honghui  /  Gong Li as Xian Niang  /  Donnie Yen as Commander Tung  /  Jason Scott Lee as Böri Khan  /  Ron Yuan as Sergeant Qiang  /  Jet Li as The Emperor  /  Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou  /  Utkarsh Ambudkar as Skath

Directed by Niki Caro  /  Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek

Disney's MULAN - their umpteenth live action remake of an animated classic - is a real double dipper offender in terms of being wastefully unnecessary and a missed creative opportunity all the same.  

Of course, this is based and adapted from the 1998 animated film of the same name, which, in turn, was taken from the Chinese folklore THE BALLAD OF MULAN.  I'll positively concede that it's unlike the studio's previous and near scene for scene remakes (see ALADDIN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and the most egregious copycat, THE LION KING) and attempts to be its own thing, which is modestly commendable.  Plus, it thankfully retains the first film's noble minded themes, not to mention that it harnesses an ethnically appropriate Chinese cast.  And this film is as visually opulent as any of these remakes; it's a masterpiece of art direction and production design.  Dramatically, though, MULAN is incredibly flat footed, which is not assisted by the middling performances, some highly questionable changes to the source material, and a share of behind the scenes controversies that still stick out months after release. 

Those familiar with and fond of (as I am) the '98 iteration will be in familiar narrative territory here, albeit with some creative changes (some mild, some - as just mentioned - deeply counter productive).  The core nuts and bolts of the story are intact: Set in feudal China, we're quickly introduced to one of the core antagonists in Rouran warrior Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who wages war and attacks his enemies without any mercy.  This leads the Emperor (an unrecognizable and frail looking Jet Li) to begin a mobilization effort and create a grand army to stop Khan's invaders once and for all.  Every family from the land is to have one man conscripted into service, which is a deeply unsettling option for Hua Zhoa (Tzi Ma), who was once a determined and decorated war hero before a devastating leg injury put him on the sidelines for good.  

If only there was another man of the house to take his place... 

Never fear, because fate steps in with Mulan (Liu Yifei), who's definitely not a man, but is as capable and dexterous of a warrior as any man in the land, mostly because of her ability to harness the mystical power of Chi since being a small child (more on this in a bit).  She decides, largely against her misogynistic dad's wishes, to masquerade as a man by stealing Hua's armor and join the ranks of Commander Tung's (Donnie Yen) vast army, but she must go through all of the training exercises to prove her worth as a gallant warrior.  She butts heads frequently with another recruit Chen Honghui (Yonson An), who never once surmises that this equal on the battlefield is indeed a she (one of the problems with this remake - that tries to aim for some semblance of realism - is that it's never once plausible that anyone in this battalion would believe that someone that looks like Yifei would pass as a man...something that the animated film perhaps could hide more easily).  Eventually, Mulan proves her worth while maintaining her false facade, and her skills and fortitude are put to the test when Khan's forces attack, with the help of shape shifting witch Xian Niang (Gong Li), who proves to be a whole other type of thorn in China's side altogether. 

 

 

MULAN is a film that could have been white washed with casting so deceptively easy, so it's reassuring to see that Disney didn't fall for that and instead recruited a who's who of established and legendary Chinese talent.  Jet Li, Gong Li, and Donnie Yen hardly need much introduction to even Western audiences, and their combined screen presence here brings a certain level of gravitas to the proceedings.  MULAN is also an absolute triumph of imagery throughout, with very little, if any, expense spared in concocting a dazzling array of colorful and eye popping set pieces, many of which make great usage of the natural Chinese and New Zealand shooting locations (obviously augmented with VFX trickery) to give this picture so much visual splendor.  I didn't see this film in a cinema and instead opted via Disney+ on my 4K Dolby Vision enabled display, and the results were consistently stupendous.  MULAN is a feast for the eyes and senses and will probably be considered prime demo material for home theater enthusiasts. 

Alas, everything else in this film rings with such a cold hollowness.  The themes here of female empowerment, breaking gender norms, confronting and tearing down conventional ideals of femininity and masculinity, and so forth are, yes, preserved here and are good ones for viewers to digest.  But they're betrayed by some key and damaging changes to the MULAN mythology in ways I wasn't expecting, and to the point of distraction.  The decision to give, for lack of a better description, Force-like powers to the titular character (not present in its antecedent) undoes the core message of this woman battling through the odds to find her inner strength and resolve to break through suffocating cultural barriers and obstacles.  Unfortunately, Mulan here never really has to endure much hardship, because she's uncommonly blessed with the "boundless energy of life itself" that Chi provides as early as childhood.  She's simply a meta human in this version, and pretty much impervious to any type of attack, large or small. In the animated MULAN you sensed all of the vulnerabilities and uncertainties that this young woman was going through on her spiritual quest; she felt relatable.  In this redo, she's like a super hero plucked right out of the Disney owned MCU.  There's no sense of journey on display for this Mulan to find her resolve because she's all powerful right from the beginning.  The stakes never feel truly dangerous for her throughout the course of the film, and her transformation, as a result, lacks any tangible potency. 

Oh, but wait, Mulan's ability to use the Force...er...her Chi is limited when she's dishonest, which means that she can't fully use it unless she stripes her armor, literally lets her hair down, and courageously hurtles herself into battle with her fake identity thrown to the curb.  Needless mystical abilities added in to damaging levels aside, another issue with MULAN is, well, Mulan herself, who's mostly a blank emotional slate as far as heroines go.  This has a lot to do with the casting of Yifei, who's a luminous presence and looks the part, but never seems to emotionally harness its complexities to the fullest extent (the actress also caused a major off-camera stir pre-release when she openly seemed to support Hong Kong police brutality, which must have set the House of Mouse really off from a marketing perspective).  She's more of a posing action figure in the film and less a fully fledged and realized protagonist.  The villains of the piece fare no better, with both Gong Li's morphing magic user and Jason Scott Lee's military man very under developed as worthwhile adversaries.  A little more embellishment of these key characters could have gone an awfully long way for MULAN, but the motives of these baddies feels woefully stripped down and under developed. 

I've greatly neglected to mention that Disney had the foresight to gather together many fine women to helm this film about a woman, and getting the outside of the box pick of New Zealand's Niki Caro (WHALE RIDER) to helm this $200 million plus production is noteworthy (this is the most expensive film ever directed by a woman, and that's an important milestone).  Granted, there is something to be said about a film that's so entrenched in Chinese culture (or at least wants to be) being made by white people (MULAN was directed and written by Caucasians).  The main issue with Caro's direction, though, is that for as much polish as the visuals have here, she seems a bit out of her league in terms of helming the many action beats in the film, most of which range from competent to chaotically assembled and never have the grace and panache they so rightfully deserve.  That, and when it boils right down to it, Caro has made something so colorfully alive, yet dramatically dead.  This MULAN aims for more realism than the last several Disney remakes, but it remains as aggressively soft pedaled, safe, and family friendly (no one should expect a hard edged take on MULAN from Disney, but this is nevertheless a bloodless take that has too many rough edges sanded down).   

I could have seen this film in a cinema for $10-15, but then COVID reared its ugly head and closed most of them.  Then Disney decided to launch it on its $10/month Disney+ streaming service...for a $40 Canadian rental fee on top (a bargain for families, to be sure, but a ridiculously unfair and greedy fee for us single folk, and I could write a whole opinion piece on this delivery model and its impact on the industry).  I opted to wait and screened it for free on Disney+ (they illogically announced its free date right up with the their paid rental date, a WTF?! industry move if there ever was one).  This brings me to the question: Is this worth seeing...regardless of delivery model or fee paid?  Not especially.  MULAN tries to shake things up (as remakes should do), but its choices alienate instead of inspire.  It's a grand looking misfire, beautiful to gaze at, but lacking in genuine soul or purpose.  It also continues Disney's needless pursuit - as I've labeled it for years - of spoon feeding a generation of audiences reheated leftovers instead of new full course meals.  On top of methodically trying to milk money out of filmgoer's pockets by giving them the same thing twice, Disney is also using MULAN to pathetically tap into Chinese markets with a final product that, ironically enough, probably won't appreciate its oversimplification of a cherished cultural legend.  This might not be Disney's worst remake to date, but it's easily their most cynical minded.

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