‘MULAN’ Review: A Smudged Reflection of a Strong Image

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

MULAN

Rated PG-13, 115 minutes

Directed by: Niki Caro

Starring: Yifei LiuDonnie YenLi Gong, Jason Scott Lee, Jet Li, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao

Unlike a few of Disney’s recent features that have undergone the lucrative, yet entirely unnecessary transition from animation to live-action (cough, cough. THE LION KING and ALADDIN), Niki Caro’s MULAN fares fairly well in its justification for existing. Her mirrored reflection of the 1998 masterpiece is smeared with the former’s fingerprints, of course. However, it still delivers the uplifting, powerful potency from its sentiments about sacrifice, courage, honor and devotion to family – cornerstone virtues of which we can all stand to be reminded.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) has demonstrated remarkable skill and determination in dangerous situations from a very young age. But fearing dishonor from their community, her mother (Rosalind Chao) and father (Tzi Ma) encourage her to dampen her fiery spirit and embrace a life of conformity. All of this changes when a proclamation is issued by the Emperor (Jet Li) that one male from every household must enlist in the Imperial army to defend against a nefarious rebel group led by power-hungry Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Since the only man in Mulan’s household is her invalid father, Mulan takes it upon herself to go in his place, disguising her identity and assuming his for combat duty.

Though the bone structure is roughly the same as the original, there’s a significant amount that’s been retooled to varying degrees of success by screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek. The latest directive is that our beloved heroine is an expert warrior from the beginning, told to suppress her power to fit cultural and societal norms, and must learn to embrace her “chi” and put it into action. This slant provides an interesting angle, but it doesn’t feel nearly as satiating. The filmmakers supplement the main villain’s quest with a second adversary, Xianniang (Gong Li), a witchy woman whose own journey to find freedom from oppression parallels Mulan’s. This doesn’t add much to the overall conflict, blessedly subverting the “two women fighting each other” trope, but adds to the drama. At times, Xianniang’s the more beguiling character. Her tenuous physical and psychological struggles to assert her independence from a maniacal tyrant are far more fascinating than seeing the protagonist who’s already an agile fighter attain her deserved respect.

Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li in MULAN. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

The poignancy and gusto of the musical numbers are gone, only for those arrangements to be used occasionally during pivotal points in Harry Gregson-Williams’ complementary score when it’s in service to the character. Some of the original song lyrics are threaded throughout the picture in dialogue (like the commanding officer referencing a line in “Be A Man”), or scene substitutions (like the soldiers discussing their ideal woman during a meal as an homage to “A Girl Worth Fighting For”). The live-action iteration doesn’t feel lacking for those song sequences, per se, but it also doesn’t help that they aren’t there, considering they came with their own identity, energy and sense of gravitas.

Caro’s direction in concert with David Coulson’s editing is inconsistent and hobbles some of the picture’s prowess. Their collaboration soars during comedy-forward segments (like when Mulan is getting ready for and subsequently botching her meeting with the judgmental Matchmaker), beautiful battalion training montages and potent moments revolving around dad and daughter. Yet it’s noticeably choppy in the face-off between the Witch and Mulan, appearing more akin to a music video than an elegantly choreographed match between counterbalanced characters with poetry of movement like in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

Where it does find its own “chi” is within the aesthetics, both in the sprawling natural landscapes reflecting the limitless potential our heroine harbors and in the filmmaker’s more controlled intent, like in Mandy Walker’s resplendent cinematography, Grant Major’s superb production design (which subtly recalls some of the animated film’s craftsmanship) and Bina Daigeler’s detailed, textural costume design. While the filmmakers don’t tap into the original’s allusions to mirrored reflections, they instead assign a phoenix as their thematic motif, which stands to augment the idea that Mulan’s false male cover needs to crumble before her true voice can re-emerge from the ashes.

Caro and company have also captured radiance and strength in the ensemble’s performances. Liu distinctively brings out her tough character’s subtle, softer notes of grace, gumption and vulnerability. She’s a magnetic dynamo with impressive dexterity, holding her own in action scenes as well as the emotionally driven ones – specifically those shared with Ma, whose delicate, faceted work is nothing short of wonderful. Li is a charismatic powerhouse, commanding the screen with her presence, instilling her badass with regal undertones and empathetic overtones. Finally, Lee makes for a phenomenal arrogant baddie, bringing to light a dark menace.

The positive, timeless merits of the original, primarily the push-pull of Mulan’s identity crisis balancing being a dutiful daughter and a ferocious fighter, remain at the center of this remake. Its sentiments speaking to character-building bravery in the face of adversity are indeed empowering. Nevertheless, with a longer run time and facing challenges in the storyline’s delivery, it feels a little like a dulled facsimile of a crisp original.

MULAN is available on DisneyPlus starting September 4 with Premier Access for an added cost of $29.99. It will be available to all DisneyPlus subscribers at no extra cost on December 4.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.