- Movie Rating -

Mulan (2020)

| September 4, 2020

I get a cold shudder every time I hear that Disney is refitting one of their animated classics to live action.  I am not averse to the practice per se but the results have not been stellar.  The studio seems persistent to wrench a few million off of a practice in which the output is generally terrible, from the glum nothingness of Beauty and the Beast to the CG-barfing nothingness of Aladdin to whatever nothingness that Dumbo was trying to get across, these films always feel awkward and weird.

For Mulan, I had hope, not because I expected it to be good, but because after The Lion King turned out to be the worst movie of 2019 (that’s not a solitary opinion) I just kind of figured that the trend of turning these animated classics into live action had nowhere to go but up.

The box office has been good but the quality has been bad and that’s what makes Disney’s decision to release Mulan on Disney+ with a Premium Access one-time payment of $29.99 such a gamble.  Does that seem like an over-inflated way for Disney to separate you from your money?  Possibly.  But consider that this is the virtually same price you’d be paying to take a date to the theater to see it anyway.

Thankfully it is worth the trouble.  This retelling of Mulan is a rousing adventure, loaded with girl-power and enough visual treats to fill ten movies.  Plus, it is its own thing.  New Zealand director Niki Caro (best known for Whale Rider and North Country) is true to the spirit of Mulan while creating an action-adventure fable that moves with a spirit all its own.  It is much more somber and serious (read: no Eddie Murphy, no ancestor ghosts) and often that’s a good thing.  I don’t want to imagine this terra-firma retelling with Mushu’s modern jokes and CG rendering.  He’s best left on the 2D plane.

That this movie doesn’t try to copy the animated version is refreshing in some ways and somewhat frustrating in others.  On the positive, the story is surprisingly current, a story of rising above restrictive gender politics in a system that punishes women with dishonor and death, about how Hua Mulan defied an entire patriarchy and became not only a national hero but a legend whose adventure is still being retold after 500 years.

The obvious push toward stronger female lead is certainly at play here.  Young Yifei Liu has a wonderful screen presence.  She looks great on the back of a horse and she has a way of mixing strength and uncertainty on the battlefield.  And she does a great job of conveying what she is thinking with her eyes.

The over-all story is based on an ancient piece of Chinese folklore, “The Ballad of Mulan”, but the forward momentum of the remake is the 1998 original. though without songs and, again, without Eddie Murphy. 

Set in 17th century China, Yifei plays Mulan, a spirited young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to serve in the Imperial Army when her country is attacked by foreign invaders.  Her motivation is to take her father’s place; he is a veteran but is much too old for battle and has a bad leg (am I the only one who thinks that he could have been made an officer based on his military record?  Nevermind.)

That leads to the film’s great achievement: some of the best and most rousing battle sequences probably since Braveheart.  They have the kind of epic grandeur that make you sorry that you’re not seeing this on the big screen.  Plus . . . they are orchestrated!  So many battle scenes these days are just crowd control, throwing actors onto a set and having them swing around.  Here there is an orientation to what is happening, so that we can follow along.  We get involved and the battles mean something!

My favorite fight scene occurs between Mulan and a shape-shifting witch on a sheet of green sulfur ice.  The colors in this scene are so vibrant that they should earn an Oscar all by themselves.  Did I say shape-shifting witch?  Yes!  This is a new character added to the story and played by the legendary Gong Li.  It is nice to see her in an American production and it is hoped that Disney gets wise with the character and show us her origin story.

Alas, as much as I loved Mulan, there is one downside.  I wish the story had a little more flesh, a little more color added to the characters.  The dramatic pace of the movie is often in such a hurry to get to the next high point that it skips over some of the emotional weight.  Example: in the 1998 animated film there was a lovely relationship between Mulan and her father that was handled beautifully in just a few scenes.  Here it left me cold, like the movie was in too big a hurry to get Mulan onto the battlefield.

The pacing is a problem, but the major moments are really satisfying.  Mulan’s journey is an important one, not just from a 17th century perspective but from a 2020 perspective as well.  Many have complained that the trek of too many Disney princesses is that their trajectory was to find the man of their dreams.  That trope is nowhere near this movie.  Mulan isn’t about finding a man, she’s about finding the woman inside of herself and that makes her journey an important one.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized