Runtime: 115 Minutes
Director: Niki Caro
Stars: Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao
By Valerie Kalfrin
“Mulan,” Disney’s latest live-action update of an animated film, is a disappointment. Part of that is beyond the film’s control. Streaming exclusively on Disney+ because of the global COVID-19 pandemic (and costing an additional $30 fee), “Mulan” is a grand-scale adventure with sumptuous costumes and set design, sweeping vistas, and elaborately choreographed action and martial arts clearly meant to be seen on a big screen.
Yet it also falls short in terms of story and character development, particularly for its protagonist, the first and only East Asian member of the Disney Princess franchise. It’s hard to imagine fans of the 1998 animated “Mulan” not feeling that this version shortchanges Mulan’s best qualities, in spite of the efforts of Yifei Liu (“The Assassins”) as the lead and the rest of the venerable Asian cast. Even those unfamiliar with the animated film’s endearingly down-to-earth warrior may find difficulty connecting with her emotionally this time around.
“Disney’s new live-action “Mulan” gives its heroine superpowers through chi, or “boundless energy of life itself.” She can easily vault over any hurdles in her way.”
Both films are based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a young woman who during the Han dynasty dresses as a man to take her aging father’s place when he’s ordered to serve in the army. This decision at the time was considered deceitful and courted death. But because of her bravery, integrity, and skills on the battlefield, Mulan wins over her male colleagues and gains the confidence to embrace who she is. She’s an unusual woman, but to paraphrase the animated film’s song “Reflection,” she doesn’t have to wonder anymore whether the face she shows to the world reflects who she is inside.
Director Niki Caro (2002’s “Whale Rider,” 2017’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife”) is a good fit for such a story about self-acceptance, and she handles the action and pageantry well. Production designer Grant Major gives Mulan’s village and the royal palace splendor, and the score by Harry Gregson-Williams weaves in melodies from the animated film’s songs.
But the smaller moments and Mulan’s inner journey feel lacking, even with four screenwriters on board: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (both of “Jurassic World”), and relative newcomers Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek.
This version changes several points from the animated film, such as making the invaders the Rouran instead of the Huns. But most significantly – and discomforting – it gives Mulan superpowers.
They’re not called as such – her father (Tzi Ma) in a voiceover explains that she has strong chi, or “boundless energy of life itself.” But this setup makes it tough to feel that Mulan is ever in any danger, or to see her character grow.
As a young girl (an impishly playful Crystal Rao), Mulan flips onto a third-story roof, slides down the tiles, catches herself with a staff, and lands expertly on the ground, an acrobatic feat worthy of Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, or Jet Li (here, playing China’s emperor). She can easily vault over any hurdles in her way.
Ma (“The Farewell”) is a warm presence who clearly doesn’t have the heart to tell Mulan that “chi is for warriors, not daughters,” but the plot requires him to say heavy-handed phrases like “hide your gift,” “silence your voice,” and “know your place.” His wife (Rosalind Chao, “The Joy Luck Club”) emphasizes that Mulan’s only way to bring honor is to marry well, just as in the animated film. But because of Mulan’s added chi, she’s also concerned that their daughter will be outcast as a witch.
Mom is right to worry because the invading army has a sorceress on its side: Xianniang, a shape-shifter played by Li Gong (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”). She transforms into a hawk – her costumes alone by Bina Daigeler are to die for – acting as a scout for leader Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee of TV’s “Hawaii Five-0,” who relishes playing the villain).
Xianniang also has trained the Rourans in wuxia-style combat where they run up walls and catch arrows in midair. (Think 2002’s “Hero” or 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”) Mulan keeps pace with them feat for feat, dodging arrows with backbends and kicking spears out of people’s hands behind her back.
“Introducing magic does give Mulan an intriguing relationship with Xianniang, who knows what it’s like to be a powerful woman who is feared and misunderstood. Yet their scenes together feel rushed, as does Mulan’s overall conflict.”
Liu’s physicality is impressive; she reportedly did the majority of her stunts. She also has amiable chemistry with Honghui (Yoson An, “The Luminaries”), a fellow soldier replacing the animated film’s captain Li Shang as her love interest. A scene where the two spar during training is an amusing bit of flirty one-upmanship.
Introducing magic does give Mulan an intriguing relationship with Xianniang, who knows what it’s like to be a powerful woman who is feared and misunderstood. Yet their scenes together feel rushed, as does Mulan’s overall conflict. Once Mulan reveals her identity, it’s not long before her colleagues accept her, including the stern and traditional Commander Tung (Donnie Yen, the warrior monk of “Rogue One”).
Incidentally, this “Mulan” has no tiny dragon guardian, voiced by Eddie Murphy in the original, or a cute cricket sidekick. But it does give Mulan a guiding phoenix and a fellow soldier named Cricket, played by Jun Yu of TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” And Ming-Na Wen (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), who voiced the animated Mulan, appears in a splendid cameo.
In Disney’s hands, Mulan’s story always did lend itself to spectacle. The animated film includes set pieces such as an avalanche that Mulan triggers to bury the enemy’s forces. But she remained a relatable character who was thrilling to watch because of her doubts, strength, empathy, and wits. It’s a shame that someone decided she needed a sprinkling of pixie dust.