Directed by Niki Caro.
Starring Yifei Liu, Yoson An, Gong Li, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Ron Yuan, Jet Li, Tzi Ma, Jimmy Wong, Doua Moua, Chen Tang, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Chum Ehelepola, Rosalind Chao, Susana Tang, Nelson Lee, Cheng Pei-Pei, Radhesh Aria, Hoon Lee, and Crystal Rao.
A young Chinese maiden disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father. A live-action feature film based on Disney’s Mulan.
One of the opening scenes of Disney’s live-action interpretation of Mulan (still based on the Chinese folklore) sees the eponymous character as a child freely doing parkour and demonstrating her agility and athleticism. Her father encourages this, but the rest of the village collectively disapproves of her adrenaline-rushing aerial traversal. Seeing that many male faces simultaneously sighing and brushing off her impressive dexterity brings to mind sexist audiences around the world up in arms whenever female characters, especially heroines, are given such awe-inspiring skill sets. Male protagonists are allowed to physically impress however they want and defy all expectations, but the second a woman starts to reach that same level of astonishment insecure men play the believability card and demand exposition as to how such feats are possible. Even if answers are provided, generally they still come up with more nonsensical questions they would never dare ask a male counterpart, as for them it’s much easier to accept.
Wisely, director Niki Caro’s historical epic reimagining of the beloved animated classic takes this opportunity to include a secondary villain alongside a Rouran warrior (Jason Scott Lee’s Bori Khan) and his army invading China; a villainess that can mirror Yifei Liu’s Mulan when it comes to both physical combat and narrative purposes. Xian Lang (Gong Li) is a powerful witch and shapeshifter who has aligned herself with Bori Khan out of nothing more than ostracization over her supernatural abilities. It’s a direct juxtaposition to Mulan, who as a young adult becomes strictly forbidden from showing off not only her acrobatic maneuvers but all around playfulness. Over time, even her father instills in her a no-nonsense attitude wishing for her to find a suitable partner and bring honor to the family through marriage. One side is driven to disobey tradition out of defending her country and for heroic intentions, whereas Xian Lang has given up hope of ever being accepted and is prepared to serve a blood-lusting invader seeking vengeance whose only intent is bringing forth chaos and destruction.
All of it is the perfect set up and the correct approach to make Mulan the best of Disney’s live-action remakes; something different, something similar, something progressive and relevant, and obviously, something exciting with a humongous budget. Unfortunately, Mulan never reaches any of the heights it has set for itself, and it’s not hard to pinpoint why. The costumes are colorful and extravagant (although sometimes the colors feel muted and don’t pop as much as they should), there’s plenty of action (the choreography is especially excellent during confined spaces that allow for Mulan to run along walls and flip all over the place, rather than large-scale battles that end just as they are beginning), and the acting is mostly solid (I’m not going to get into the controversy surrounding Yifei Liu, but I will say she plays the part convincingly.)
The issue seems to be that the four screenwriters Rick Jaffe, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek) seem to be unsure of themselves on whether to trust this new story direction or stick to some of the more familiar plot points. There’s nothing wrong with having some callbacks to the original animated feature, but many of them are jarring and out of place when it comes to this new overly serious rendition. In a movie where one of the main antagonists is a witch, it actually becomes puzzling why the creative direction insisted on stripping away some of the more unrealistic the charming elements (most notably, a tiny motormouthed sidekick dragon.) The only answer appears to be that it’s a journey of bravery, loyalty, and truthfulness that Mulan must tackle alone, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from implementing a forced romantic subplot that never blooms into anything emotional (it’s worth pointing out that rather than getting close to her general which could be seen as problematic during current times, it’s a fellow warrior she falls for this time.)
Plot beats such as the arduous training segment also never really land. None of the characters are actually interesting, as even Donnie Yen struggles to create something compelling about the commander. Jet Li is pretty much sleepwalking through his role as the Emperor of China. The villain is one dimensional with motives as generic as they come, and one can’t help but feel the storytelling would be vastly improved by nixing him in favor of giving more screen time to Xian Lang. Naturally, things pick up once the film enters into a more action-oriented tone as it better allows the artistic vision to match the material. There is even a reworked final battle that is fairly exhilarating.
Maybe it would have been enough goodwill to recommend Mulan, but the narrative ends on a sour note that is halfheartedly attempting to be progressive. Without spoiling it, let’s just say I was getting aggravated when a certain character was apologizing for things they shouldn’t have to apologize for in the first place. The final message is one of upholding traditional values in a film that is inherently about going against those beliefs. This ending would be fine in 1998, but in 2020 audiences deserve something with more forward-thinking. Mulan as a story is empowering, and this new iteration even toys with intriguing concepts (some recycled from the animated the original, some new) regarding the perception of women, but it’s not improved thematically or progressively. Somehow Disney has made the same damn movie even while actively trying to do something different.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com