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Review: Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Mulan’ has more swords and sorcery but less magic

Yifei Liu in Disney's "Mulan"
Yifei Liu in Disney’s “Mulan”
(Disney)

The most intriguing character in Disney’s visually dazzling new spin on “Mulan” is not the intrepid young woman who passes herself off as a male soldier, fights off an invading army and swoops and slashes her way into Chinese legend. Nor is it a red dragon named Mushu, the wisecracking animal sidekick from the studio’s 1998 animated version, who has been excised from this more realistic retelling.

Of course, realism is a relative concept for a Disney-branded entertainment. The standout I’m thinking of is Xianniang, a warrior-sorceress who wields her dark arts in service of the enemy. A vision in face paint and elaborate headgear, Xianniang can assume other human forms and, when the mood strikes her, erupt into a mighty flock of birds. But by far her most special effect is the fact that she’s played by Gong Li, whose serene gaze proves as majestic as any mountain backdrop — and holds up rather better on the small screen to which this lavish spectacle has been relegated.

For the record:

10:08 AM, Sep. 03, 2020An earlier version of this review incorrectly credited Jerry Goldsmith with composing the music for the songs in the 1998 animated version of “Mulan.” Goldsmith did the film’s score and Matthew Wilder composed the music for the songs.

The New Zealand-born director Niki Caro is hardly the first artist to revisit “The Ballad of Mulan,” a centuries-old epic poem that has long fed the imaginations of novelists, playwrights and filmmakers. But her movie almost certainly faces the highest stakes. It must shoulder the enormous weight of Disney’s corporate machinery as it seeks to conquer audiences from East to West, and also the burden of Asian representation in an American film industry struggling to be (or at least appear) more inclusive. And now it has become a test of that industry’s shifting strategies in the wake of COVID-19, as it bypasses theaters and arrives this week as a premium video offering on the studio’s Disney+ streaming platform.

Having attended a theatrical screening back in early March, a few weeks before it was originally scheduled for worldwide release, I can attest that “Mulan,” though far from a great movie, was clearly made for a great big screen, to judge by its sheer volume of silk brocades, gilded sets and mountain vistas. (Caro’s gifted collaborators include the costume designer Bina Daigeler, the production designer Grant Major and the cinematographer Mandy Walker.) A smaller-screen viewing at home this week provided some useful perspective — a chance to look past the visual wonders and dramatic blunders and see the movie for the messy, admirable, unenviable tangle of cultural contradictions that it is.

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Yifei Liu in the movie "Mulan."
(Film Frame / Disney )

Not that contradictions are always a bad thing. Disney’s animated “Mulan” — a charming, underappreciated entry from the tail end of the studio’s ’90s hand-drawn renaissance — was a highly effective weave of Chinese folklore and distinctly American showbiz energy. The memorable song score included a classic heroine’s lament (“Reflection”) and a workout jam for the ages (“I’ll Make a Man Out of You”). The movie clicked in no small part because, like most Disney cartoons, it made no claim to realism; it was a wittily stylized object, incongruous on the page but deft and disarming in the execution.

This new “Mulan” — written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin — is made of decidedly sterner stuff, or at least it wants to be. To say that it rises above the standard of recent live-action redundancies like “Dumbo” and “The Lion King” is something less than an extravagant compliment. Like those pricey, upholstered deluxe editions, it tries to turn the immediacy and muscularity of live-action into dramatic dividends. In this case, that means taking a page from famous wuxia films and battle epics from Chinese auteurs like Zhang Yimou and Tsui Hark, plus a hefty dose of the ramparts-storming, catapult-launching action popularized by “Game of Thrones” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (which, like much of this film, was shot in New Zealand).

All this makes for an interesting if not entirely seamless fit with a corporate house style known for its squeaky-clean uplift. (This is the rare Disney release deemed intense enough to warrant a PG-13 rating.) No one bleeds, really, but no one bursts into song, either, which is a bit of a shame. A few of those memorable Matthew Wilder tunes do resurface in Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, while some of David Zippel’s lyrics have been carefully repurposed as dialogue.

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Gong Li in the movie "Mulan."
(Film Frame / Disney)

Speaking of which: Rather than speaking Chinese, the characters predictably employ the stilted, accented English that has long been Hollywood’s favored syntax for Asian-set stories. Consequently, this “Mulan” is easier on the eyes than the ears, which has as much to do with the writing as with the language. The words seem to have been scripted less for the characters than for the audience, one that presumably needs concepts like chi, filial duty and family honor spelled out as slowly and repeatedly as possible.

Things get off to a clunky start in a small northern village, where Hua Mulan is already chasing chickens and leaping from rooftops with acrobatic aplomb. Played briefly as a young girl by Crystal Rao and as a young woman by Yifei Liu, she’s a born fighter, which concerns her parents (the excellent Rosalind Chao and Tzi Ma), who fear she’ll prove too strong-willed to fulfill her filial duty and find a husband.

But her true calling is on the march. In brisk if over-edited action sequences that maintain a steady drumbeat of tension, an invading Rouran army — led by an Inigo-Montoya-on-steroids named Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) — is shown cutting a fiery swath from Mongolia toward China’s Imperial City. With the nation in peril, the Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that one man from each family must serve in his army, a burden that falls to Mulan’s aging father. Determined to save him, Mulan makes other plans: She steals her father’s sword and armor, flees on horseback and takes his place in the army, passing herself off as a young man named Hua Jun.

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The movie stirs to life as Mulan is initiated into the rigors, routines and occasional horrors of military life, and Liu and Caro tease out both the suspense and the comedy of the situation. (Mulan’s bath-time anxiety makes for an effective running gag.) The other soldiers are coarse but amiable goofballs, with the striking exception of Honghui (a charismatic Yoson An), who, after some combative sparks, soon recognizes Hua Jun as the strongest fighter in their battalion. Like the animated film, this “Mulan” throws off a few cautious romantic sparks while stopping short of actual romance.

Yifei Liu, center, in front of Yoson An in the movie "Mulan."
(Jasin Boland / Disney)

But there are also crucial differences. Unlike her cartoon counterpart, Mulan is a skilled fighter from the beginning. Her struggle is thus not about whether she can become a great warrior, but whether she can walk confidently in her true identity and embrace the great warrior she already is. Intriguingly, it’s the treacherous sorceress who calls out and subliminally echoes her dilemma: Whether evil twin or stealth ally, Xianniang, too, is a woman fighting for her place in a man’s army.

This isn’t the first time Caro has turned a spotlight on patriarchy, and her movie feels of a piece with both the folkloric enchantment of “Whale Rider” and the fierce social critique of “North Country,” the director’s underappreciated 2005 drama about a landmark sexual harassment case. In “Mulan,” the critique is directed inward as well as outward: Male-dominated systems of power aside, there’s a valuable lesson here about how secrets and lies can poison an individual’s potential. But one of the movie’s persistent problems is that it often seems to be nothing but lessons — most of them bluntly spelled out, swiftly absorbed and almost automatically rewarded, in ways that short-circuit tension and emotion.

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There are bright spots. Ma, so good in last year’s “The Farewell,” proves that he can do moving father-daughter interplay in any century. Donnie Yen is nearly as moving as an army commander who takes Mulan under his wing while remaining touchingly oblivious to her ruse. As the emperor, Li has few martial arts moves but many opportunities for beard-stroking gravitas. Like Gong, another Chinese screen legend, he lends the proceedings a glimmer of authenticity and a valedictory spirit.

Donnie Yen in the movie "Mulan."
(Film Frame / Disney)

The younger generation shows pluck and promise as well, if also room to grow. While Liu’s acrobatic swordplay is as deft as her disguise, there’s a curious blankness to her Mulan, an emotional vagueness masquerading as reserve. This may well be deliberate; she seems less like a full-fledged character than a walking embodiment of honor and courage. Precisely what Mulan symbolizes, of course, has long been contested; for centuries she has been claimed and reclaimed, celebrated for her patriotism and her selfless love for her family, but also for her audacious assault on a patriarchal tradition that holds sway to this day.

As I said: contradictions. Like more than a few Chinese military epics, the Mulan legend and its various iterations have spurred criticism of their perceived nationalist overtones. This movie, emerging amid heightened global attention to China’s human rights abuses, has already spurred controversy and calls for a boycott, driven by Liu’s recent comments in support of the police crackdown on Hong Kong protestors. In the U.S., meanwhile, the film is being sold as a triumph of gender parity and racial progress, a claim that seems a touch simplistic in light of its superficial engagement with Chinese culture and history.

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Admittedly, spinning Middle Kingdom lore into Magic Kingdom riches has always been a tricky proposition, partly because the industry views commercial viability and cultural nuance as irreconcilable opposites, and partly because even tales of the distant past have a way of brushing up against a politically contentious present. To these eyes, “Mulan” is a heroic muddle, one that elicits both a disappointed sigh and an appreciative nod. It lays down a marker of progress achieved and progress to come. It says: Let’s get down to business.

‘Mulan’

Rated: PG-13, for sequences of violence

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Available Sept. 4 as PVOD on Disney+


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