2020 | PG-13 | starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jet Li | directed by Niki Caro | 1 hr 56 mins |
The Disney live-action remake machine has been quick to gobble up the IP of it’s stone-cold classics. It’s resulted in one creative dud after another, movies that mistake what was so charming about their animated counterparts in the first place and huge box office success. Now it’s come to 1998’s Mulan, hardly a classic from the studio’s serious 90s collection almost entirely staring human characters and probably the most obviously adapted to live action as anything in it’s cannon. 1998’s Mulan is not a bad film, but it’s not sacred either, a ripe opportunity for an actual sword-and-shield live action film to step in and improve on the predecessor.
When an imperial outpost is invaded by warriors, the Emperor (Jet Li) sends armies out to the nearby villages to recruit the families eldest son to fight in the forming army. In a small village Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu, introducing to Western audiences), decides to disguise herself as a man to prevent her father (Tzi Ma, The Farewell) from joining. While hiding her identity she befriends a fellow soldier (Donnie Yen) and comes up against a witch that is working with the invading army to assassinate the emperor.
Directed by Niki Caro (North Country), seizes the opportunity to make a Chinese imperial epic for the younger crowd. Because no Disney movie would be complete without witches and it would be impossible to ask young people to sit through a straight-forward Kurasowa-style medieval China battle epic, it has a little magic too. Caro integrates the two well, mixing the battles with spurts of Crouching Tiger wire-fu acrobatics. I enjoyed the first act of the film quite a bit, it sets the stage well, creating a lived-in village for Mulan and her family and shooting beautiful landscapes. The movie even gets through the training montages without being too painful. Mulan has a bit of the Gun Range Surprise trope in it – the “surprise” of a woman doing better than a man at male things putting forth the idea that the men got lazy and complacent and Mulan has to work extra hard to compete on their level – except she doesn’t really, she seems naturally acrobatic and high energy. Like any piece of Disney girl power Mulan has no arc and learns nothing, except that she was right all along.
Both the most fun part of the film and the most technically frustrating is the 3rd act. As well paced as the first half of the film is in arranging these pieces and building the world when it comes time to pay it off it’s exciting, but also rushed. It’s too quickly paced, moving and cutting from one thing to the next and forcing it’s characters and storylines together all too conveniently. If it was trying to slip under a 2 hour running time, it’s the training montage stuff I would have cut while letting the climax breath a whole lot more.
As someone who is baffled by the continued success of these movies, of the push toward realism over animated imagination and who thinks these Disney live-action remakes are a creatively bankrupt run on a cinematic hamster’s wheel, Mulan is one of the better remakes in this lot. It looks fine, it’s entertaining, Yifei Liu makes a fine heroine. It has it’s several flaws, is shallow, built on cliches and (most troubling) built by Chinese communist party slaves in labor camps that the Mouse House is totally ok to work with while calling us sexist. As a movie it does the one basic thing that few of these remakes ever do: justify it’s own existence.