Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Mulan (2020) dir. Niki Caro

Disney's battle-focused re-imagining fails in the worst ways

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Delayed by – what else?- the COVID-19 pandemic, the live action Mulan remake arrived this weekend exclusively on Disney Plus for the low low price of… $30? Yikes. Unfortunately, what may have made for an engaging cinematic event falls flat at home, but not even a beautiful IMAX screen could rescue Mulan from a shoddy script, poor pacing, and a re-imagining of the lead character that is ultimately insulting to the original ballad.

Much of what audiences loved about the 1998 animated feature is nowhere to be found in Niki Caro’s adaptation. It is not a musical, it does not feature a CGI version of Mushu, Li Shang has been turned into a couple different characters, and Mulan faces off against a witch that turns into a bird. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. 

The film opens with Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) narrating the tale of his daughter Mulan (Liu Yifei), a girl born with powerful chi, an innate ability usually only found in boys. Fearing she will be branded a witch, Zhou tells Mulan to conceal her chi and focus on becoming a proper young woman. Meanwhile, a warrior named Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) has teamed up with a shapeshifting witch known as Xian Lang (Gong Li) to conquer China. The Emperor (Jet Li, whose dialogue seems to have been dubbed, and poorly at that?) decrees that one man per family must join the imperial army and defend the kingdom from these invaders. Knowing her father will die if he goes, Mulan takes the family sword, disguises herself as a man and joins the army in his stead. If this sounds like a rather breathless description of the first act, I’m just trying to match the film’s pace. Everything happens so quickly that nothing has an impact. Think of how powerful Mulan’s decision is in the animated original. Here, the change happens in seconds, and the music is nowhere near the original’s level.

Somewhere along the way, Disney decided to turn Mulan into a jedi instead of someone who uses her smarts and wit to conquer her enemies. Battle comes naturally to Mulan because she has chi, and this chi leads the other soldiers to trust her implicitly after feeling briefly betrayed by her true nature. Mulan does not struggle in a realistic way to the detriment of her character. There is an attempt to make her story parallel to that of the witch, but it doesn’t land. The action scenes take place on some incredible landscapes, but the shift between actual stunts and CGI is nowhere near seamless and takes you out of the story in an instant. The trailers managed to hide these flaws, but I was shocked at how haphazard the battles felt. Mulan’s near-invincibility doesn’t help either. I know they tried to mimic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but the action doesn’t sing like it did in 2000.

There’s plenty more to say about Mulan, but it’ll fade from your mind so quickly it doesn’t seem worth it. Overall, I just feel bad for the families that are paying $30 for a sub-par action movie that flattens an excellent female character in a lazy attempt to appear more “progressive” than 1998– whatever that means.

Mulan
2020
Dir. Niki Caro
115 min

Available for 30 goddamn dollars on Disney Plus, but will be free to watch with subscription starting 12/4.

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