Though they have made some heaping piles of money, a lot of the recent live action remakes of the beloved back catalogue of Disney animations have failed to answer the question; what’s the (not purely financial) point? Many of them, from Beauty and the Beast to Lion King have basically been shot-for-shot remakes, only this time lacking their gorgeous cartoon visuals. Niki Caro’s Mulan is, finally, the exception to this rule, taking an epic war story and making, well, a war epic out of it. It’s a move that would have been far better suited to cinemas than to the Disney + streaming it’s been granted, though, the obligatory small screen experience detracting from Mulan’s better qualities.
The plot beats are basically the same – to spare her elderly father from having to fight in a war against northern invaders, precocious young woman Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a man to fight in China’s Imperial Army. From there follows the familiar gender-hiding awkwardness, harsh military training, and a final showdown with the barbarian leader Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). However, Caro has chosen to eliminate the songs, goofy sidekicks, and even most of the romance from the original, all in favour of a more violent, action-heavy tale (it’s the first of these remakes to earn a 12a rating).
It’s a decision that only pays off in fits and starts. A lot of the original Mulan’s appeal and longevity is down to its iconic soundtrack and unconventional love story, both of which are sorely missed here. A couple of references are made here and there to ‘Reflection’ and ‘I’ll Make A Man Out Of You’, but this is a far more straight-laced take on the legend. In place of the musical numbers are some grand fight scenes.
Mulan is aiming at a sort of wuxia Lord of the Rings in the battles, but often falls short of this admirable ambition. Some of the fights are superb, but most of them get bogged down in sloppy camerawork and frantic editing that lacks the grace of, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or the visceral crunch of LOTR. If the action itself is a mixed bag, thankfully the visual splendour surrounding it certainly isn’t. Gorgeous vistas and eye-popping colour make for striking backdrops that absolutely belong on the big screen, but still make an impact even on your laptop.
Liu gives an impressive performance, both as an action star and in the quieter, more contemplative moments, but not many of the supporting cast are as memorable. The loss of the songs and romance means that Mulan’s fellow soldiers are far more forgettable than they were the first time out, and the big name guest stars of Donnie Yen and Jet Li, as the commander and the emperor respectively, aren’t given enough to do. Li in particular is bafflingly wasted, spending most of his limited screen time sitting down and having all of his dialogue dubbed over for no discernible reason.
Tzi Ma is genuinely excellent, though, as Mulan’s father, bringing a moving gravitas to the scenes in the family home, and Gong Li strikes a regal figure as antagonistic witch Xianniang. A character invented specifically for this remake, Xiannang serves as a dark mirror of Mulan, a woman violently making her way through a man’s world, and Gong manages to carefully balance her inner strife with imposing villainy, making for a more sympathetic villain than Disney usually produces.
A lot of Mulan’s flaws would be more easily forgiven if it had come to cinemas, and it seems harsh to relegate a female-directed, all-Chinese cast blockbuster to streaming, a fate that a whiter, more male movie would likely have avoided. As it stands, it’s a perfectly fun family movie night, but lacks the joyous vibrancy to even come close to surpassing its source.