“Mulan” stars Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, and Jet Li. Released on Disney+ on September 4, 2020, the film is about a woman who takes her father’s place to serve in the Imperial Chinese Army.
The film is directed by Niki Caro, who also directed films such as “Whale Rider”, “North Country”, “McFarland, USA”, and “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. It is based on the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan” by Guo Maoqian, and it is a live action adaptation of the 1998 animated film of the same name. Whether we like it or not, the Disney live-action remake train is still chugging along with its next stop being…you guessed it, China. After months of waiting, we are finally getting to see if this latest remake can become a mighty warrior or a mighty wimp. Originally destined to be the next box office hit for Disney, the film was delayed multiple times from its original March 2020 release date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeing that the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon, the studio has finally decided to cancel its theatrical release in favor of a Disney+ release, but with a catch. This release marks the debut of the streaming service’s newest feature called “Premier Access” in which you have to pay an additional $30 to watch the film. That’s right, on a streaming service that allows you to watch a bunch of movies for free with a paid subscription, you have to give it more money in order to watch a new movie. That’s insane. On the plus side, however, you get to keep the film for as long as you stay subscribed to Disney+. Seeing that the film costs around $200 million to make, I can see why they made this decision. The coronavirus is still circling around the area, and the theaters are doing what they can to keep themselves open, even if it means decreasing their capacities by 50 percent. So if the film is released in theaters instead during this time, the probability of it breaking even would be…less than 50 percent. Releasing it on Disney+ with a price tag does sound irritating at first, but at least it will keep families safe at home during the pandemic. It would be interesting to see how much money it makes from Disney’s premiere access strategy, but right now, I’m more focused on how their latest remake turns out. With that in mind, let’s head out to war.
The film follows the same storyline as the 1998 animated film, except there are no musical numbers and there's no small dragon with the voice of Eddie Murphy. So if you’re hoping that the film will have the same formula as the recent Disney remakes like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King”, you might feel either disappointed or grateful depending on your perspectives towards the latter two. For those who haven’t seen the 1998 version, the story centers on Mulan (Yifei), the eldest daughter of the Hua family. She learns that the Emperor of China (Jet Li) is issuing a decree that one man from each family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend China from Northern invaders lead by the ruthless Bori Khan (Lee) and a powerful witch named Xian Lang (Gong Li). Hua Zhou (Tza Ma), Mulan’s father and a former war veteran, was chosen to take part in the army despite his poor health. Fearing that her father may not survive, Mulan decides to take his place by disguising herself as a man. With the help of Commander Tung (Yen) and the other recruits, including the ambitious Chen Honghui (An), Mulan must face every obstacle possible in order to save China and embrace her true potential. The film marks the first Disney live-action remake to earn a PG-13 rating as opposed to the usual PG rating that the other remakes received, mostly due to its violent content. So there will be some sequences that might be a bit intense for the younger crowd. Just throwing it out there in case you’re planning on watching it with your kids. This is a mature take on the animated version’s narrative that showcases the main character’s journey of self-discovery, which is one of the main reasons why the 1998 film still holds a place in my heart, with the other reason being Mushu, of course. What I like about this live-action upgrade is that it honored the themes and Chinese traditions that were represented in the animated version, such as being honorable and true to one’s self, while offering some new material to keep the story from being too familiar. We still see Mulan as a woman who’s willing to save her father and bring honor to her family despite the consequences of breaking tradition. I still see Mulan as a great role model who inspires other women to not be afraid of who they want to be, and I’m happy to see that portrayal again in a whole new light. The next thing I want to talk about is the cast, which consists of actors from Asian descent. Smart move, Disney, smart move. Liu Yifei assumes the role of the title character that once belonged to Ming-Na Wen in the animated version. She’s been in other films before this one, but unsurprisingly, I haven’t heard of anything she’s been in because they’re mostly from China, so I’m counting this as my first encounter with this actress/singer. All I can really say about her performance was that it was fine. She definitely captured the spirit of the character in her own way, even though her acting was a hit-and-miss. I still prefer Wen’s portrayal of Mulan, but Yifei has enough moments of her own to reintroduce the character to a new generation of fans. Donnie Yen and Yoson An were also decent in their roles as Commander Tung and Chen Honghui respectively, with the latter being a tolerable addition to the film. The only character in the remake that interested me the most was Xian Lang, who was portrayed by Gong Li. I was concerned that she’ll wind up being a generic sidekick to Jason Scott Lee’s Bori Khan, a vile warrior who’s based on Shan Yu from the animated version. Seeing that she actually got plenty of things to do in the film was, in my eyes, quite surprising. Without giving away spoilers, I thought the screenwriters did a nice job at attempting to give Xian Lang some necessary depth. As for Li’s performance, it was good. Not bad, not perfect. Just good enough. I also want to mention Jet Li, who was almost unrecognizable as the Emperor of China in terms of his makeup and his voice. He was passable in the role, but I couldn’t help but feel that the way he sounds wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. It didn’t detract my experience with the film, so I’m thankful for that. The film’s production design and the costumes were also the best parts because of how they accurately reflect the lifestyle and traditions of the Chinese culture. They looked absolutely stunning, in my opinion. So yeah, there are definitely some good things that can be found in this latest live-action remake from Disney, but unfortunately, there are also some bad things that could bring dishonor to some die-hard fans of the 1998 version. Obviously, this is another remake that lacked the impact of its animated counterpart in terms of its storytelling, a common flaw that has plagued the other live-action remakes before this one. While I did appreciate the film for staying true to the source material as well as delivering some fresh material to make itself stand out on its own, I thought the execution on these qualities fell a bit flat. The clunky narrative structure didn’t help that much as it constantly rushed through specific scenes without giving them the amount of depth they deserve. For a film that’s less than two hours long, that’s pretty annoying. The action sequences were also something that left me feeling mixed. On the one hand, the choreography was simply enjoyable. On the other hand, the action that was shown onscreen wasn’t as exciting as I thought they would be. If its goal was to create an action style that resembles the kung fu movies from the past, then I hate to say that it wasn’t able to accomplish that mission. Because of the flawed editing and the forgettable stunt work, the film’s sequences struggled to combine realistic war elements with the elements that require suspension of disbelief.
Overall, the live-action remake of “Mulan” is honorable with its themes and inspiration, but its flawed storytelling prevented it from making a man out of me. It definitely has plenty of likable moments, such as the cast, the messages, and the production design. However, it also has moments that make this another disappointing addition to the studio’s “live-action remake” collection, such as its rushed narrative and the action sequences. It’s something that you will either love or hate depending on your expectations towards it. Was it worth paying additional money for? Not really, but hey, it could’ve been a lot worse. It’s a fine watch for those who are interested and are familiar with the 1998 version. As for those who are saving up their money on important stuff, they’re better off waiting until it’s free to watch on Disney+.