What justifies a live-action remake of a beloved classic? Is it better technology? A new chance at better cultural representation? Or is it really just a cash grab aimed at mining the audience’s nostalgia for a childhood staple? For Disney and its recent string of uninspired live-action remakes of its animated hits, it’s usually the latter, with the first two being rolled out as typical excuses.
But Niki Caro‘s Mulan promised something different: a new vision of the beloved 1998 animated film that would hew closer to the Chinese legend and perhaps give us Disney’s first war epic. And on those counts, the Mulan remake delivers: a sumptuous, solemn war film that bucks the tiresome Disney trend of shot-for-shot remakes. But Mulan, for all its visual splendor and deep dramatic weight, isn’t as fierce as a raging fire as it could be.
There’s a patina of prestige to Mulan. It opens with a somber text that gives the historical context in which this story is told, as if setting up a legend that will soon play out across our screens. Like an awards-contending biopic, Mulan starts right at the beginning, with a child Mulan (Crystal Rao) bursting onto the screen as a young, untamable girl with a penchant for chasing roosters through her small enclosed village. Though her father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) allows her plenty of freedom with an affectionate twinkle in his eye, her latest hijinks embarrass her family and force him to put a stop to her wild ways. Several years later, and Mulan is now a young woman (Liu Yifei) set to be matched with a potential husband, until she is interrupted by an errant spider terrorizing her younger sister (Xana Tang, an addition of the movie) as well as the arrival of a messenger from the king recruiting new soldiers to fight in the war against the invading Rourans. Her disabled father nobly accepts the conscription, much to Mulan’s trepidation. Fearing for her father’s life, Mulan steals his armor and enlists in the Imperial Army in his place.
Despite all the emphasis in the press focused on Mulan adapting the original Chinese folktale The Ballad of Mulan, the film hits most of the major beats of the 1998 animated film. The additions to fill out the film’s two-hour runtime are mostly inventions to appeal to its new PG-13 demographic: a quest for revenge by a Rouran warrior leader (Jason Scott Lee), a vindictive shape-shifting witch played by Gong Li (vamping under her witchy make-up), and a more complex political backdrop (though not too political, considering the audiences this film is mainly aimed at).
Yes, the zany sidekicks are gone. Mulan doesn’t cut her hair. The musical songs are out — only scattered throughout the film’s score in instrumental form. There’s been lots of teeth-gnashing about the fact that Mulan isn’t a musical, but the film doesn’t suffer at all for it. It’s a compelling war drama about a woman struggling with her identity, played out in inspiring training montages and smatterings of magical realism — a phoenix, which becomes the replacement for the dragon of the animated film, appears in Mulan’s greatest times of need, though we’re never certain if it’s real or just a figment of her imagination.
But what Mulan does suffer from is the absence of the levity that the musical elements would have brought. Mulan is serious verging on dour, so bent on presenting itself as a serious war drama that its rare moments of comedy feel almost awkwardly slotted in. Even in its most lighthearted moments, there’s a weightiness to the film which Caro brings from her prestige drama background with films like Whale Rider and The Zookeeper’s Wife. It’s ironic that the most enjoyable parts of the film — aside from the breathtaking battle sequences in which Caro pipes in tons of fog to make her red-clad star look as striking as possible — take place in the training camp for the new recruits. Liu proves herself to be an adept physical comedian, shedding her delicate persona that she’s cultivated in her career in China to be as rough-and-tumble and silly as the role demands. Mulan, upon arrival at the camp, immediately gets in a fight with another new conscript Chen Honghui (a smoldering Yoson An, who later gives us possibly one of the most sensual scenes in a Disney movie), and volunteers for night duty to avoid risking her identity in the communal showers, getting grimier and more exacerbated with each passing day.
Liu is an enigma of a star; her face is often poised and stoic, but can twist into disgust, distress, or guilt when the situation calls for it, only to snap back to her de facto blank expression. Her performance doesn’t offer any of the internality that is required to convey Mulan’s greatest conflict: her turmoil at not being “true,” especially in the face of her intimidating but encouraging Commander Tung (an always awesome Donnie Yen). “Loyal, brave, and true” is the mantra bandied about most in this film, so much so that it begins to sound like the empty rhetoric it is — in addition to standing for the film’s stronger embrace of the Confucian principles of the original folktale.
Caro directs Mulan from a screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin, which should tell you right off the bat the kind of movie-by-committee result that the film ends up being, despite the inspired visual and tonal direction that Caro takes. But if there’s any saving grace, it’s Caro’s direction, which binds together a disjointed script into one gorgeous spectacle of a film. The colors pop off the screen (sometimes not in the best way in the artificially constructed sets for Mulan’s village) and the battle scenes — in which Mulan twirls through with wuxia-level grace, hair unbound and red robes ablaze — are majestic, inducing the kind of awe and wonder that had been missing from the rest of the film. It’s glorious, and it makes you wish it didn’t take an hour and a half to get here.
I can’t write about Mulan without writing about the tangled politics surrounding it. Though Mulan is refreshingly not in the same vein as its creatively lazy shot-for-shot predecessors, it buckles under the burden of trying to appeal to a Chinese market. Instead of mining nostalgia (though it still does plenty of that, in subtler ways), Mulan is mining China’s box office power, or attempting to at least. But the elements cut to appeal to Chinese audiences — the dragon sidekick, Mulan’s iconic haircut — aren’t really missed. It’s the boundless energy, the sheer triumph of an outsider who finds her calling of the animated film; vibrant emotions which Disney succeeds at so well. The Mulan remake instead feels like it walks on eggshells the entire time, juggling Caro’s attempts to tell a cohesive story about identity with what was decided on by committee. As a result, this Mulan feels exceedingly duty-bound.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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