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.
The one twist is the extensive discussion of chi, the notion of one’s essential life force, which this movie essentially turns into the Force from Star Wars. Mulan is particularly good at channeling her chi; she can slow down time to do lots of cool spin moves and well-timed kicks during battle. Her mastery over her chi is limited, however, by dishonesty—which is how the movie boils down her internal struggle over disguising herself. The film is too risk-averse to explore much of a romance with her fellow soldier Chen Honghui (Yoson An) while Mulan is dressed as a man, and instead spends too much time wrestling with her duplicity.
Any time the film indulges in flights of fancy, it’s more enjoyable. The Chinese film legend Gong Li does as much as she can playing the film’s secondary villain, a shape-shifting witch named Xianniang, who sports some cool warrior makeup and a hawk claw for a hand. She’s a darker mirror image of Mulan, a marginalized woman leveraging her magic powers, but she’s too often shunted to the side in favor of the poorly defined main adversary, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), an invader from the north whose grievances against the Chinese emperor (Jet Li) are thinly sketched at best. The movie has little interest in understanding the wider conflict that turns Mulan into a warrior, instead painting the emperor as wise and benevolent, even after he institutes a national draft. Mulan’s narrative arc is less interested in her coming to terms with herself—and seemingly more driven by the honor that comes from protecting the emperor without question.
Still, many of the battle sequences are spectacular to behold—it’s unfortunate that this film is debuting online in the United States because of the spread of COVID-19, given the wide canvas Caro is painting on. While the Disney+ release guarantees a wide and safe viewing experience, especially for families, the spectacle will sadly feel a little lacking at home. The cast is loaded with venerable stars, including Donnie Yen as Mulan’s stern commanding officer—though most of them are asked to do little more than supply gravitas.
Mulan delivers a straightforwardly heroic narrative of a capable woman battling her way to respect. It just doesn’t have much else to add.