The ever-expanding canon of Disney’s “live-action remakes” of its own animated classics can be handily split into two categories. There are the intensely faithful remakes, such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, which take hit films of yesteryear and present them as largely the same narrative, with original songs intact. Then there are the slightly more interesting revamps, such as Dumbo and Pete’s Dragon, which try to find a new angle on an old story. Niki Caro’s Mulan, which is launching today on Disney+ for subscribers who pay a $30 surcharge, falls firmly in the latter camp, turning a whimsical and musical animated film into a straight-faced, grown-up epic. But this expensive update adds nothing except empty bombast.
The animated Mulan, released in 1998, felt daring by Disney’s predictable storytelling standards at the time. It has a simpler, starker animation style that remains striking, and a warrior protagonist who does not belong to nobility (Mulan remains the only Disney princess who is not a princess at all). Loosely inspired by the Chinese myth of Hua Mulan, a female soldier who takes her father’s place in the army and fights disguised as a man for 12 years, the animated film is surprisingly playful about gender roles and willing to wrangle with the character’s internal struggle as she hides her femininity.
The updated Mulan is told on a grand scale (the budget is reported at $200 million) and is chockablock with breathtaking sets and costumes and impressive battle sequences. But it’s missing the original film’s humor and daring, telling a fairly conventional tale of a stoic warrior whose adoption of a male identity is little more than a means to an end; it also lacks the sweet sensitivity of Caro’s best films (like her breakout Whale Rider). Mulan (played by Liu Yifei) is a woman graced with uncommon skill for battle but prescribed a life of domesticity. When her frail father (the wonderful Tzi Ma) is drafted into the military to do battle with northern invaders, she disguises herself to take his place. From there, Mulan essentially turns into a straightforward war movie with a mere dash of magic.