Niki Caro's live-action take is a pure visual delight, though it fails to fill the void left from cutting out the songs and comedy
If one of the more memorable lyrics from Disney's 1998 animated classic Mulan was “Let's get down to business,” this live-action remake – the most expensive movie ever helmed by a female filmmaker – ditches the song but retains the sentiment of that line. That's to say, for all its visual wonderment and some inventive fight choreography, it's hard to shake the feeling that Disney's latest do-over is just business as usual.
The biggest issue facing any movie of this sort is in figuring out what to keep and what to reimagine. On one end of the spectrum you have something like Maleficent, which used the Sleeping Beauty template but did its own thing entirely, while on the other side there's the 2019 version of The Lion King, essentially a shot-for-shot remake. Mulan places somewhere in the middle in terms of faithfulness, opting to cut the original's musical numbers and much of the comedy – most of it provided by Eddie Murphy as the voice of dragon Mushu – as though to make a statement for a future of more “original” remakes.
But what had been preordained as a bold new vision on the basis of its trailers turns out to be closer to fine than forward-thinking. This Mulan, after all, might be the rare live-action retread that actually suffers from its decision to “go at things differently” because it doesn't really ever get around to doing that. As though unsure whether to rock the boat, it eschews the original's best elements but forgets to replace them with new or interesting alternatives. The result is a film that's enjoyable in the moment, though one with an unmistakable sense of the formulaic about it, something a bit soulless.
Once again taking inspiration from the 4th century Chinese legend, the story follows a young woman named Mulan (a worthy performance from Liu Yifei) who disguises herself as a man in order to join the Army in the place of her father – a wounded veteran here played by the great Tzi Ma. A war is raging, and so one man from each family has been called up to fight. After stealing her dad's armour and sword, Mulan enlists and must navigate a man's world while pretending to be one; it isn't long before she's bashing heads with the evil Bori Kha (Jason Scott Lee), who plans to murder the Emperor (a very stoic Jet Li) in a misguided attempt to avenge his father's death.
The focus here is not in reinventing the story, but in grand spectacle, with an emphasis on martial arts inspired by the long tradition of Chinese “wuxia” films. That is, the B-movies that flooded Chinese markets in the 60s and 70s and were later repurposed for Western audiences as contemplative arthouse gems packed with intricate fight choreography, most memorably in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Well, this is no Crouching Tiger, though director Niki Caro and her cinematographer Mandy Walker have created what is perhaps the most visually appealing Disney remake yet, even if they don't quite make the most of the wuxia influence. Mulan is absolutely gorgeous to look at for all its two hour runtime, its world boldly rendered in vibrant shades of red, gold, and blue (the fact that it's gone straight to Disney+ in favour of the big screen experience feels like the studio committing a minor crime).
Mulan has enough visual panache and inventive choreography to warrant its existence, then, peppered as it is with references to the animated original – the best coming as part of a Harry Gregson-Williams score that reprises that film's most memorable melodies at key moments (no match for Jerry Goldsmith's sublime, rousing work on the original). Elsewhere, the film is let down by broad antics, stilted dialogue (both written and performed), and instances of dodgy CGI that pull you right out of the experience. The drum-tight animated version put you through a flood of emotions, too, but this Mulan – perhaps on account of the expressionless line readings – never reaches such emotional peaks. You watch this Mulan, though you don't quite feel it.
This retelling also has the odd conceit of having Mulan supernaturally gifted at swordplay and martial arts as though from birth. It's explained that she has a rare, spiritual ability to draw energy from her surroundings, a harmonious power not unlike the Force in Star Wars, but it also denies our hero the possibility of a more interesting arc during the training sequences, which make up a good third of the action. Perhaps, given today's market, we should have anticipated Mulan as a superhero origin tale – a point emphasised by an open-ended finale suggesting the possibility of further adventures should this one make enough at the box office.
What you're left with is a pretty solid remake but a lingering sense that it's also a bit of a missed opportunity. Gender roles are explored, somewhat, but perhaps to no larger extent than they were in the original feature. 22 years later, was it wrong to expect a bit more? And while – some dodgy editing aside – the action captivates in the moment, it quickly vanishes from memory, a distinct lack of personality making the film feel less epic than it's supposed to. Maybe what this remake needed, after all, was some catchy songs and a talking dragon.
Mulan is now streaming on Disney+ and costs £19.99 in the UK.Where to watch