‘Mulan’ review: more realistic, less fun

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HUNTER FRIESEN, Film Critic

For over a decade now, Disney has been mining their animated catalog of magical stories and remaking them into live-action movies. This trend has had its ups (the visual spectacle found within “The Jungle Book”) and its downs (last year’s joylessly photorealistic “The Lion King”), but each one has made buckets of money for the house of mouse.

Originally set to join the line of remakes back in March was “Mulan”. For obvious pandemic reasons, that release didn’t go as planned and now the film has been released straight to Disney+ at the exorbitant fee of $29.99, which is on top of your regular monthly payments. It’s a price point no one should come close to thinking of paying, especially considering that the movie they are buying pales in comparison to its animated predecessor.

If you’ve seen the original 1998 version of “Mulan”, then you’ve already seen this newer adaptation as the story follows the same path.

The film opens in Imperial China as we are introduced to Mulan, a young adventurous girl that is often a disappointment because she does not fit her predestined gender role. In this opening sequence, we are dazzled with all the things money can buy. At a budget of $200 million, it’s no surprise that the sets are luscious, the costumes are pristine, and the makeup is vibrant.

Further illustrating the power of money is the locations used by director Niki Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker. The duo beautifully gives life to the rural and urban landscapes, even if some moments can be ruined by an overabundance of computer effect meddling.

After an invasion by the villainous Böri Khan, the emperor conscripts an army made up of one man per family. Unfortunately for Mulan’s family, the only man is their war-wounded father who surely will not survive. Under the cover of night, Mulan takes her father’s gear and sets out in his place for the army. Upon reaching the training grounds, we are introduced to the lot of supporting characters, first of which is Commander Tung. The rest of the gang are younger lads that only possess one character trait to set them apart.

The training sequence is where Caro exemplifies her chops as a director. She creates bold imagery that gives off a sense of power and courage. Caro also injects a bit of wuxia (a Chinese action genre that suspends physics in favor of more fantastical action) into the action. Even if it is over-edited, the stunt work is something to admire as elaborate set pieces are constructed in various interesting locations.

And while it’s no “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, composer Harry Gregson-Williams does deliver a terrifically epic score to punctuate the action scenes.

What clouds over this newest version of “Mulan” and negates many of its accomplishments is the shocking lack of fun within the movie. Stripping itself of the musical numbers and talking animals, and then adding on a dour tone about warfare doesn’t make for a very inspirational or entertaining time. Of course, a war movie doesn’t have to be all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s next to impossible to take this movie seriously when there’s an identical bright, animated version that’s superior in nearly every way.

Chinese star Yifei Lu plays the titular character with both grace and ferocity. She expertly tackles the language barrier and carries the majority of the film’s emotional weight on her shoulders. Her interactions with her father (brilliantly played by Tzi Ma) are the highlights.

Playing a new character in the story is Gong Li as the conflicted witch Xianniang. She’s as mysterious as the dark side of the moon and often toes the line between hero and villain with her inventive powers. It’s a shame that she and Jason Scott Lee’s Böri Khan were given little to work with.

Chinese megastars Donnie Yen and Jet Li play Commander Tung and Emperor, respectively. Yen and Li lend star power to their minor supporting roles, which was probably the only reason they were cast.

Overall: 3/5 

The newest version of “Mulan” is a passable film that fares better than most of the assembly line remakes that have preceded it. But at the same time, it still falters to the original and lacks the entertaining bite that has never been in short supply within Disney films. At the high price required to view it, the best option would be to wait until Dec. 4, when the movie is available at no extra cost to Disney+ subscribers.