‘Mulan’ brings honor to no one

Disney live action remakes are a special kind of cinematic purgatory. Few of them are truly irredeemable; you can always count on lavish production design, ornate costumes and some solid VFX. But in service of what? “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” — these movies are soulless. I’m not sure a studio has ever been so blatant, or so aggressive, about milking the nostalgia cash cow.

And yet, I watched “Mulan.” Hypocrite much?

It looks bad, I know, but listen. We all have that one Disney movie, that one VHS we rewound so many times as a kid that the tape is sticking out of the cassette. For me, the honor goes to 1998’s “Mulan,” objectively the best Disney princess and one of my favorite animated movies, full stop. The music, the animation, the humor, the heart — chef’s kiss. So I’m allowed to drop 30 bucks on the live action remake, OK? That’s probably Disney’s strategy, come to think of it — remake every animated film in their vault so you feel obligated to at least see your favorite.

Alongside her fellow corporate cash grabs, 2020’s “Mulan” occupies a complicated space. Unlike 2019’s “The Lion King,” which was basically a shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 classic, and unlike every other live action adaptation, which change only the most perfunctory of details, “Mulan” draws less from the 1998 musical than it does the Chinese legend. There are no songs and no sidekicks. Entire characters have been erased, and in their place are brand-new ones. 

Disney devotees will posit that these changes — or the lack thereof — are exactly what we critics keep complaining about. “You bash Disney for faithfully adapting the source material,” they say, “then criticize them for straying from it? What do you want?” Well, preferably, I want them to stop making these things.

But since that’s not going to happen, I’ll take them as they come. Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife”), “Mulan” is in keeping with the Disney live action tradition of high production value. Shot on location in China, the sets are spectacular — appropriately mammoth and intricately detailed to boot. The costumes are equally exquisite, as is the hair and makeup, which work in tandem to ensure every stage of Mulan’s journey feels real.

Unfortunately, Mulan herself is a miss. Portrayed by Chinese actress Liu Yifei — whose comments in support of Hong Kong police have haunted the film ever since — Mulan is solemn with no spunk. While Yifei is graceful in action sequences (the wire work for which might call to mind your favorite wuxia films), her version of Mulan is humorless. She’s also impenetrable thanks to a plot device in the screenplay that essentially bestows upon her superpowers. Mulan is a beloved character because of her humor and heart; she’s empowering not because she proves that a superwoman can be a hero but because she proves every woman can be a hero. Yifei’s flat and unflappable performance cuts off any emotional investment.

Otherwise, the cast is solid. Tzi Ma from “The Farewell” delivers as Mulan’s father, while Gong Li — whom Wikipedia describes as “the greatest actress in China today” — surprises in an original role, the shapeshifting witch Xian Lang. The entire ensemble is stacked with Chinese and Chinese-American stars: Donnie Yen, Rosalind Chao and even Jet Li as the emperor.

But “Mulan” has a cinematic identity crisis. Who is this film for? Is it for American audiences, who can tell when Hollywood is pandering to a foreign market? Is it for Chinese audiences, who might very well be offended by movies about China written and directed by white people?

Maybe “forgettable” is the best we could have hoped for. 5/10

This review was originally published on September 11, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

[Update: This review was written (not published) before I was aware of what’s happening in Xianjiang. Educate yourself here.]

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