I don’t envy any director hired to film a live-action adaptation of a Disney animated film. There’s a balance to be made between style and substance, between fidelity to the original and innovation to the present. It’s just as easy to inject new life into a property by spinning it around into something new as it is to drain all the life away by sticking too close to the original. Disney’s live-action version of Mulan tries to split the difference, fusing the original film with a more accurate retelling of the Chinese legend. While it creates something distinct from the original, that isn’t in and of itself always a great thing.
Like the animated classic, this film tells the story of Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), the oldest daughter of a retired warrior in ancient China. When the empire is under attack from invaders, the Emperor orders one man from every family to be conscripted into the army. To save her frail father from a war that would kill him, Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army in his place, growing into the power and confidence that will make her a legendary warrior.
Director Niki Caro has made a distinct choice to make this version of Mulan’s story as realistic and grounded as possible while still retaining an air of the fantastical. There is a distinct grit and earthiness to Caro’s film, and her approach mixes grace and brutality in an ever-shifting equation. Battle scenes feature some impressive choreography and delicate stunt work but also have some deadly violence that occasionally knocks on the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. Mulan is involved in a war, after all, and it’s hard to make that family-friendly or light-hearted.
In fact, there is little in way of humor or whimsy in Caro’s version of the story, something that is both welcome and not. On the one hand, it brings an air of gravitas to Mulan’s story and reminds us of the importance of her place in Chinese folklore. On the other, it does end up making the film as a whole feel a little too heavy and even occasionally tedious. The film is rarely a slog, but it’s also rarely exhilarating.
Caro should be commended, however, for casting a focus squarely on Mulan herself. While fans of the original have criticized the film for removing her wise-cracking dragon sidekick Mushu, his presence would not only completely disrupt the realistic vibe Caro is going for, it would pull focus from Mulan’s journey. The only companion Mulan has this time is a silent phoenix, an ancestral spirit that occasionally appears to guide her and that may or may not even be real in the first place. This time around, Mulan is relying entirely on her own abilities and inner strength to meet her challenges.
The canvas Caro lays down to tell Mulan’s story is honestly pretty impressive on an audio/visual level. Her lens is dynamic enough to keep the film interesting even in the more tepid parts, and she has a solid grasp of the type of setting she wants to depict. The battles are easy to follow and have enough impressive stunt work to keep them exciting. Her palette is helped by a solid score from Harry Gregson-Williams that echoes the music from the original in meaningful and deliberate ways.
It’s just a shame about the screenplay, though. It really, truly is. Frankly, the script is mostly lifeless and dull. It should be commended for its pacing, wasting little time getting Mulan from her village to the army, but that’s about the best that can be said for it. It’s rarely awful, but it never rises to the same level as Caro’s direction. Most egregiously, it focuses more on Mulan’s story than it does on Mulan herself. It doesn’t delve deep enough into her to establish a firm personality beyond a generically rebellious nature and a desire to protect her family and kingdom.
Liu Yifei tries her best to inject life into the character all the same, and she sometimes succeeds. She’s often not able to transcend the script, but she has an air of noble purpose around her. She’s trying her best, and it shows. She’s extremely impressive during the fight scenes, however, performing the vast majority of her own stunts. She is effortlessly graceful and fierce when called into combat, and she honestly displays more personality through her fight choreography than she does through the dialogue.
The most captivating performance in the film, however, goes to Gong Li as a witch in service to big bad Bori Kahn (Jason Scott Lee). In grand Disney tradition, it’s the bad guys that steal the spotlight. Gong Li could stop the show with a look, and she doesn’t need to do much at all here to shine. Her line readings are a captivating mix of sensuality, anger, and zen. Her costumes are gorgeous pieces of runway-ready villain couture. Like Mulan, she is a woman of great power and agency in a culture that views such women as inherently dangerous. But unlike Mulan, she has turned this rejection into hate, using her powers to crush and destroy rather than to protect. The contrast between the two becomes a major theme throughout the film, and she and Mulan have more time together than Mulan ever does with the ostensible main antagonist Bori Khan (whom Gong Li constantly upstages, by the way).
The rest of the cast acquits themselves well, even if like Liu Yifei they can rarely escape the mediocre script. Li Shang from the original film has been split into Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung and Yoson An’s soldier Honghui, dividing Li Shang’s roles as mentor and love interest respectively. While both have good rapport with Liu Yifei, neither relationship is developed as well as probably should have been. Yen is a joy to watch regardless, though, and Yoson An is so attractive and endearing that you can’t help but be drawn in to him. There’s is still a hint of the bi-curious in Honghui’s interactions with Mulan’s male alter ego Hua Jun, although it’s much subtler than the Li Shang/Ping dynamic. Not working so well, though, is Jet Li as the Emperor. Jet Li is a legend of Chinese cinema, that much is true. But his presence here is distracting and disappointing, his every line being spoken in the same gruff, obviously dubbed monotone.
There’s a lot to enjoy about the new Mulan, but there’s also a lot that comes off as a missed opportunity. Had the film debuted in theatres as originally planned, instead of being relegated to streaming due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film might have been able to hide some of its flaws (a.k.a. the script) through the power of sheer cinematic spectacle. What we have here is something that’s loyal, brave, and true to the spirit of both the original animated film and the legend that inspired it, but it doesn’t always reflect the best qualities of either one, as well.
But we do get a gorgeous new version of “Reflection” by Christina Aguilera over the end credits, so maybe it’s all worth it in the end.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-
Mulan can be screened through Disney+.