Mushu-less Mulan fails to excite

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Disney Plus
Sept. 4

2.5 out of 5

This is how long I’ve been doing this. I reviewed the animated Mulan in 1998 for a newspaper in Chile. I remember getting into trouble because of a smart-alecky headline (“Mulan: Disney’s first cross-dressing hero”). The local outfit of the mouse house didn’t appreciate my description of the protagonist and issued an angry letter my paper published.

Twenty-two years later, Mulan is back. This time as a live-action adventure, without signature songs or Mushu, the dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. Instead, this comparatively serious version features expensive-looking cinematography, state-of-the-art production design and a cast so stellar Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai would be envious.

The basic story, however, remains the same. The eldest daughter of a retired soldier, Mulan is a spirited young maiden (Yifei Liu) who doesn’t fit the traditional idea of who a woman should be, but is willing to go along. Girls are expected to bring honour to the family.

When northern invaders led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and a witch (Gong Li) threaten the kingdom, the Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that one man per family must serve in the imperial army. This spells certain death for Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma), who is old and crippled, so she takes his place.

Masquerading as a man, Mulan proves to be as good if not better soldier than her peers. But the same deception that allowed her to join the army may also prevent her from reaching her full potential.

That deception poisons your chi may be the biggest takeaway from a film that seems to constantly bump against its PG rating. The violence is toned down to a hilarious degree, and the mishaps of a young woman trying to pass as a man while being surrounded by males are also minimized.

What’s left is plenty of eye-popping sequences. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) puts considerable effort in composing every frame. The colours are lively, and the landscapes stunning. The cast doesn’t have to stretch much to fulfill their roles. Martial arts mainstays Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee are given room to do their thing, and Yifei Liu commands the screen with quiet ease.

Mulan, however, suffers of the same affliction as other Disney live-action remakes. It’s profoundly risk-averse. So you get stunning productions with no narrative edge (see The Lion King, Cinderella, Aladdin). This approach is only reinforced by audiences choosing the tried and true. The last time Disney took a big swing was in 2016 with the Africa-set Queen of Katwe and only made US$10 million worldwide.

While Mulan is forgettable as a film, it will be remembered as the first movie with a US$200 million budget to hit video on demand instead of having a theatrical release. Granted, the pandemic forced Disney’s hand, but people’s willingness to pay $35 to watch a premium movie at home should give us a clue about the future of the theatrical experience. My take? Invest in a big TV.