Hype is a hard thing to live up to.
Disney first announced a live-action version of Mulan in 2015. A script leak that featured a white male as the hero of the story rightly caused an uproar in 2016. Liu Yifei was cast as the title character back in 2017. The movie had a big, splashy Hollywood premiere on March 9 of this year, days before the world as we know it came to a screeching halt. The film was supposed to debut on March 27 before being (in retrospect, optimistically) postponed first to July 24 then to August 21. Finally Disney accepted that no one would be going to a movie theater anytime soon and announced it would debut the long-awaited film on its Disney+ platform for the additional cost of $29.99.
That price tag doesn’t sit well with all the subscribers who already pay seven dollars a month for Disney+. Unlike other movie on-demand rentals, once you pay the $29.99 for “Premier Access,” the movie becomes part of your Disney+ library and you have unlimited opportunities to watch the movie with no time constraints. (The film will also enter the free-to-subscribers eco-system on December 4, 2020.)
When you combine the hefty price tag, the long-delayed debut and the anticipation of those who loved the 1998 animated version with those who are hoping this live-action version will more truly represent Chinese culture, expectations for Mulan are probably unreasonably high.
Based on the Chinese folktale “The Ballad of Mulan,” Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young Chinese woman who balks at the conventions of being matched to a husband and being confined to traditional ladylike behavior. When the Emperor of China (Jet Li) decrees that every family must send a man to join the Imperial Army, Hua Mulan takes her ailing father’s place by posing as a man.
While you won’t find Mushu, the dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy in the animated film, this version has added Xianniang (Gong Li), a mystical woman who can shape-shift and control minds. She’s the right-hand to Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) who is leading the attack on the Emperor and his army. The screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, also adds the supernatural element of Mulan’s “chi” which gives her the ability to fight like no other. She must embrace and control her chi to fully realize her destiny.
The movie, with its vibrant color, sweeping vistas and gravity-defying action sequences, is visually stunning. Director Niki Caro has created a truly gorgeous movie. The original Mulan was an early example of Disney moving away from “the princess who needs to be rescued by a prince” motif that defined the studio for so long, and this version doesn’t mess with that. The movie’s hint at romance is so brief and so chaste it barely even registers. Mulan, like Elsa before her, doesn’t need a man to help her defend her kingdom, fight for what is right and defeat evil forces. She is the hero of her own story, providing an example for young girls everywhere that respecting your ancestors and honoring your family need not also mean allowing yourself to be defined by the expectations of others. Unfortunately, that lesson will likely only be delivered to girls of a certain age—this version, rated PG-13, isn’t for children. The violence is severe and graphic. Arrows to the heart. Flying spears to the head. Flaming catapults. Mortal hand-to-hand combat. It’s intense and would probably be traumatic for impressionable young minds.
Setting aside the fact that the movie is set in China and everyone is speaking English, Mulan celebrates and embraces Chinese culture and provides a true showcase for Asian actors with some real standouts, starting with Liu in the title role. As her father, a man worried about how his daughter’s fierce independence will affect her, Tzi Ma radiates compassion. Yoson An is terrific as Mulan’s fellow soldier Honghui, who helps her not only learn how to fight but how to lead.
Unlike other live-action takes on Disney animated classics such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Mulan features no singing. Instrumental versions of some of the most famous songs from the movie, including “Reflections” and “Honor to Us All” provide the film’s soundtrack. And some scenes, like the spectacular training of the soldiers in the Imperial army with their red coats flowing in the wind as they move in synchronous movements just beg for a song-and-dance number. Donny Osmond singing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” in the animated version may have been rife with problematic cultural appropriation and political incorrectness, but I can’t lie, when Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) says, “We’re going to make men out of every single one of you” before the training montage, I missed the infectious little ditty. (By the way, keep an eye out for a cameo from Ming-Na Wen, the voice of Mulan in the 1998 version.)
While glorious to look at, the movie still feels slightly hollow. All the right pieces are there, but an emotional connection to the characters is lacking. That might be due to the fact that the fighting, often in slow motion, is more on the Avengers spectrum. Mulan is supposed to be a hero, not a superhero. The special effects are too often so spectacular they take the viewer out of the story. The vibrant, colorful phoenix that looks more like a cool kite than a bird is just one example of the special effects being a little much.
Maybe it doesn’t completely live up to the anticipation, but Mulan does bring honor to this ancient tale.
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin
Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Gong Li and Jet Li
Release Date: September 4 (Disney+)