Visually, Disney‘s live-action remake of its animated Mulan, in which a girl pretends to be a boy to join the 7th-century-ish Chinese military in her father’s place, brings honor to the source. With wide, multicolored vistas, gravity-defying action beats, grand battles and occasional fantastical special effects, it’s a treat for the eyes. Veterans Donnie Yen and Jet Li are here to ensure the martial arts don’t suck, and the locations, from a mountainside staircase to a palace construction site, add beautiful obstacles for our heroes and villains. Liu Yifei, a veteran of Chinese TV and cinema at the age of 33, portrays the presumably-much-younger Hua Mulan with grace and intensity, and while it’s not much of a competition against the Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Maleficent updates, this is probably the best live-action Disney princess to date.
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There’s a big “but” coming. For whatever reason, but most likely a combination of corporate cowardice and Chinese censors, this gender-bending tale has, ironically, been neutered. Just as plainly as under the Hays Code of the 1950s, characters designated as “good” may not do a single bad deed, and if they do, they must punish themselves for it first. At the risk of spoiling any specific beats in a very familiar story, this reduces every single character conflict to a minor misunderstanding that can never taint anyone’s absolute innate goodness. Maybe that’s fair in a movie aimed at all ages. But it ultimately has the effect of letting the patriarchy entirely off the hook in what ought to be a female empowerment story. Sure, they were over-zealous in not letting women in the army, but hey, Mulan told a lie! So…both sides!
From a feminist standpoint, it gets worse. Mulan isn’t a great soldier because she trains better, or even smarter. Rather, she is able to tap into the mystical force known as chi, which in this film behaves like the Force from Star Wars, granting women Jedi-level wire-fu powers. Unlike in the animated film, where she passes a boot camp test of strength and endurance by using her ingenuity to make a creative solution, here she just uses the Force, er, chi, to become physically more powerful than men. If she couldn’t generate that chi, one assumes, she’d be a subpar soldier, strength-wise, and correctly excluded from the armed forces.
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If she could generate it unchecked, she might become like the witch (Gong Li) who now aids bad guy Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), an update of original villain Shan Yu now correctly made proto-Mongolian. Giving Mulan an evil shadow character is the remake’s most interesting idea. But ambiguity withers under censorial mandates, and such is ultimately the case here as well.
Anyone suspecting Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking dragon Mushu would be an unwelcome intrusion in a Chinese tale, told to Chinese audiences, would be correct. He’s outta here, replaced by a similarly colored phoenix that never talks and stays well in the distance. The script also abolishes the cricket (Pinocchio remake, do not make this same mistake), replaced by a human soldier named Cricket. One not distinctive in any way except for being named Cricket. The same goes for all Mulan’s other fellow warriors. Save for semi-love interest Sen Honghui (Yoson An), they blend together. Having them be rowdy or gross in idiosyncratic ways, as the animated version did, might reflect too negatively on the Chinese military. One assumes.
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But what of Captain Li Shang, Mulan’s original love interest? Gone. Mainly so Donnie Yen can be the Commander, though he’s too old to believably romance Mulan. Thus the introduction of Sen, who is very nice. Because he’s a good guy, and cannot have any bad traits.
The animated Mulan was a bold mash-up of musical, action movie, and comedy with fantasy elements. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. The live-action remake is more straightforward: it’s a wuxia action movie, period. Albeit one with long stretches between action scenes, but everything’s super-pretty to look at in the meantime. Hints of the songs remain in the score, but for the most part, this stays a straight military movie. The wire-enhanced battles aren’t on the same level as Yuen brothers choreography, but consider the audience. If this is meant to be “baby’s first wuxia,” and leads the children to discover better and more empowering offerings like Wing Chun, it performs a service.
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Director Niki Caro already made a better version of the Mulan story with Whale Rider. In that movie, a thirteen year-old Maori girl battles tribal sexism en route to becoming chief of her people. This Mulan faces almost no obstacles on her own side any more, so the only thing left for her to do is kick some ass. Which she does, in style. Caro feels hamstrung by the evident constraints on the story, but she gets visually creative. She’s actually able to duplicate the “avalanche as roaring river” sequence from the cartoon in a believable way. And both Gong Li and Jet Li (as the Emperor) get some inventive moves. You’ll want to watch this on the biggest TV screen possible.
You’ll also want to wait till December, when it becomes just another part of the basic Disney+ subscription. While a feast for the eyes, the live-action Mulan is frequently an affront to credibility. The animated version will and should satisfy any viewer cravings in the meantime.
Recommended Purchase: The Art of Mulan: A Disney Editions Classic (Disney Editions Deluxe)