Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
USA/Canada/Hong Kong, 2020. Walt Disney Pictures, Jason T. Reed Productions, Good Fear Content, China Film Group Corporation. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin, suggested by the narrative poem The Ballad of Mulan by Anonymous. Cinematography by Mandy Walker. Produced by Chris Bender, Tendo Nagenda, Jason Reed, Jake Weiner. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. Production Design by Grant Major. Costume Design by Bina Daigeler. Film Editing by David Coulson. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2020.
The unnecessary live-action remakes of animated Disney classics continue with this rendering of the bright and boisterous 1998 film, one which saw Disney moving away from European fairy tales and dipping into Chinese folklore for inspiration (and which resulted in one of its most admirable “princesses”). Mulan (played by Yifei Liu) is here, as she was then, the rebellious and excitable daughter of two exasperated parents (Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, faking an accent to blend in with the rest of the cast) who are annoyed that their eldest doesn’t tow the line like a good girl should, embarrassing them in front of the local matchmaker (Pei-pei Cheng) with her lack of feminine graces and making all prospects of a good future marriage seem unlikely. The nation’s peace is threatened by invading Rouran warriors (updated from the less historically accurate Huns in the original version) and the Emperor (an unrecognizable Jet Li) orders each household to sacrifice one male fighter to the cause of protecting Imperial China. As Mulan and her sister Xiu are the only children in their family, their aged, physically disabled father offers himself up, but before he can leave for the fight his brave daughter takes his sword and his conscription notice, disguises herself as a boy and enlists instead. Basic training is something of a task given that Mulan can’t shower with her fellow soldiers at the end of a long day, then entering the battlefield sees her challenged not only as a fighter but as a human being: the Rourans are being led by Jason Scott Lee who employs the assistance of a sorceress (played by the still breathtaking star quality of Li Gong), herself embittered by the world’s refusal to accept her as a woman with powerful gifts. Mulan is told that she cannot make a difference under an artificial identity and needs to decide if she will have the guts to save the world as her true self, and this kind of double-pronged theme (the literal, physical fight and the spiritual one) is the kind of thing that works on paper but, thanks to Niki Caro’s uninspired direction, really doesn’t make the film feel like anything other than flimsy exploitation. Other changes from the original film, such as losing the delightful song score and dropping the comic relief dragon character voiced by Eddie Murphy are done, appropriately, in the name of getting cultural details right, while diminishing the romance between Mulan and heartthrob Honghui (here played by Yoson An) emphasizes it as a tale of a female protagonist establishing not only her identity but her personal power. All worthy causes, but Caro tiptoes so very carefully through each moment of the tale in an effort to not offend anyone that she makes a film that feels like two hours of people holding their breath, there’s very little drama or tension; in fact, Mulan’s fear of bathing in front of her new friends is pretty much the only actual conflict that occurs in her entire war experience, followed by some very underwhelming (and suspiciously easy) scenes of battle. A stunning visual landscape falters in a number of outdoor images whose artificiality is too noticeable (and somehow don’t have the magnificent sweep of the battle scenes in the first film) and few of the characters have affecting personalities (and, really, if Disney was that concerned about making an accurate and sensitive film, they shouldn’t have made it in English). Liu has the perfect look and bearing for the role, she’s wholly credible in the action scenes and does her best to draw blood from the stony script the rest of the time, but her performance is hardly memorable other than her magnificent mane of hair (which also manages to flow perfectly in any gust of wind). In short, it joins Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin as diverting experiments that really only have you reminding yourself to watch the version you actually like when you get home.