WRITTEN BY: REX BASALONE, GUEST WRITER
Mulan is Disney’s latest in live-action remakes, and while it remains a successful retelling of a young woman discovering her power, it comes up short on character and emotion.
The film may surprise some, however, as it is more than just a beat-for-beat recreation or joyless rehash. Unlike the recent Aladdin and Lion King, Mulan boasts significant changes to the story, for better or for worse.
The film opens with a young Mulan chasing a chicken around her donut-shaped village. Here we see her demonstrate her qi, or jedi-like powers, as she flips and twirls with ease.
Time passes and the carefree Mulan, now played by Liu Yifei, struggles to find a suitor and bring honor to her family. Her father Zhou, played by the underutilized Tzi Ma, recognizes Mulan’s qi, but insists that she repress it: “Qi is for warriors, not daughters.”
I thought it was an odd choice to give Mulan these preternatural abilities. Rather than becoming a great warrior through hard work and perseverance, Mulan is born with abilities that automatically make her superior to her fellow soldiers.
This removes much of what made the original Mulan so inspiring. Instead of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” we get a series of lifeless montages that showcase Mulan’s qi rather than her cleverness or determination.
The movie’s most interesting original creation, a character who could have added much-needed depth to the film, comes in the form of the witch Xianniang, played by Gong Li. Flaunting an impressive array of powers and shapeshifting abilities, she acts as a mirror image of Mulan, but offers a more complex vision of a powerful woman’s place in the world.
Unfortunately, Xianniang is saddled to the main villain, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who couldn’t be more banal.
With a budget of $200 million, director Niki Caro busies herself among Mulan’s many moving parts. She tends to overshoot and overcut, which can become quite distracting at times, as scenes contain a litany of sweeping angles and rapid editing.
Despite this, Caro handles the intimacy and action adeptly, and her cinematographer Mandy Walker gives us some truly beautiful shots that made me wish I was in a movie theater.
The fight scenes and choreography are impressive, but nothing truly memorable. Mulan attempts to imitate wuxia films, a popular genre of Chinese fiction which exaggerates martial arts to superhuman levels.
The film certainly achieves this as Mulan kicks a javelin back at its thrower, but it seems a bit disjointed for the film to take itself so seriously while bombarding us with these moments.
If anything, Mulan is more akin to Disney’s slew of superhero movies than its predecessor. It’s fun and entertaining but virtually hollow.
To some, the film may navigate gender satisfyingly, and to others it won’t. It’s a question that can be only answered by the girls and women who long to see more characters that look like them and speak to them.
One thing I can say for certain, though, is that if you are already a Disney+ subscriber, wait until December to watch it and save yourself some money.