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Review: ‘Mulan’ goes heavy on the action, light on everything else

“Mulan” delivers thrilling action sequences, but fails to dive deep into its characters and their stories. (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Over five months after it was set to hit theaters, Mulan has finally seen the light of day – just not in the way moviegoers expected. The House of Mouse tried and failed (understandably so) to make a handful of new theatrical release dates work before ultimately making the choice to send its latest live-action remake straight to Disney+ for an extra fee.

It turns out the decision was the right one.

When it comes to Disney’s live-action remakes, there hasn’t been much variation in storytelling. The new versions can range anywhere from a carbon copy of the original (think last year’s “The Lion King”) to a carbon copy of the original with, like, one or two twists (think last year’s “Aladdin” or “Dumbo”). 

Here, though, Disney has finally branched out and flipped the script entirely, bringing a completely different tone and style to the film. Gone is the classic soundtrack, the romance, and even the iconic dragon Mushu, in exchange for a gritty, martial arts-focused battle film that puts giant action set pieces ahead of all else, for better or worse. 

Yifei Liu as Mulan in “Mulan.” (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Anyone who’s seen the original 1998 animated version of “Mulan” should be familiar with the general premise here, because that’s still the same. When Northern invaders attack, the Emperor of China issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army. With her ailing father (Tzi Ma) unable to serve, his fearless daughter, Mulan (Yifei Liu), disguises herself as a man to volunteer in his place. Over the coming weeks, undercover as Hua Jun, Mulan trains to unlock her inner “Qi” – a force that when harnessed correctly can give her near superhuman abilities in battle. 

Where things take a bit of a turn from the original is with the villains. There is no Shan Yu, leader of the Huns, but instead, it’s Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the evil witch Xianniang (Gong Li). This twist, along with Mulan’s family’s history with the phoenix and the inclusion of the “Qi,” allows the modern version to still embrace that same Chinese mysticism without making the film feel too juvenile with animated talking creatures. 

A still of the set from “Mulan.” (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

First and foremost, “Mulan” looks great. From the sprawling sets and backdrops to the costumes, colors, and high-flying stunts, everything about the look of this movie is beautiful. Many of the film’s live-action counterparts from Disney have been criticized for their blandness and lack of color, but that’s certainly not the case here. Whether it’s the bright fabrics, intricate makeup or stunning landscapes, something on screen is always popping.

One of the things that makes the action sequences so appealing is their elegance. It’s clear “Mulan” was inspired by a long history of martial arts films, as the fighting isn’t about brute force and weapons clashing, but instead feels more like a dance. Again, the mystical elements come into play with obscenely high jumps, flips and agility, which make for an incredible visual experience. Director Niki Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker dive even deeper into the action, though, rotating the camera to provide views and angles that are just as mind-bending as the stunts themselves. Despite its place under the Disney name, “Mulan” certainly earns its PG-13 rating. Yes, this is a Disney classic, but it’s a very violent one. There’s no blood or guts, but the battle scenes do contain a surprising amount of death and destruction, which led to some pretty jarring tonal shifts once the film reverted back to typical Disney dialogue and one-liners in between the fighting.

Gong Li as Xianniang in “Mulan.” (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Beyond the action and general look of the film, “Mulan” struggles when it comes to developing its characters. While the inclusion of Xianniang as a new antagonist provided a refreshing twist, the witch also served as an embodiment of the film’s surface-level characters. Time and time again she made strange decisions ranging from questionable battle plans (OK, we can forgive that) to a complete and inexplicable 180-degree change of heart in a matter of minutes (Not so easy to forgive). But she wasn’t the only character to struggle.

Even the titular Mulan failed to deliver a truly compelling performance, but much of that stems from clunky and basic dialogue. Instead of allowing audiences to connect with the film’s characters, the script kept them at arm’s length through oversimplified and generic conversations that often had characters stating the obvious. As a result, it felt hard to fully invest in the fate of those on screen, and the stakes of the film suffered a bit. As entertaining as the action set pieces were, it would have been nice to see a little more emphasis placed on building these characters – that you already have a well-developed blueprint for – in order to bring the emotional level up to par with the film’s spectacle.

Donnie Yen as Commander Tung in “Mulan.” (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

As exciting as it is to finally see a live-action Disney remake branch off from its predecessor, one of the greatest fears fans had upon hearing of this departure concerned the epic “Mulan” soundtrack. With hits like “Reflection” and “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You,” how could you possibly leave those tracks out this time around? Well, composer Harry Gregson-Williams delivered with a beautiful score that weaves some of the original’s most iconic themes and motifs into this new version. At the end of the day, the absence of the musical numbers doesn’t end up being a huge deal, but it still stings hearing an army general tell his troops “We’re going to make men out of all of you,” and not seeing everyone immediately break into song. 

The other and more financially-pressing concern moviegoers likely have about “Mulan” is its steep price. By forgoing a theatrical release, Disney put the film on its streaming service at a premium price. Disney+ already costs subscribers $6.99 per month, and they’ll have to be willing to spend an extra $29.99 as a one-time cost to access “Mulan.” The good news is, once you pay, it’s not a 24-hour rental – you have access for rewatches as long as you remain a Disney+ subscriber.

While it doesn’t live up to the high standards of its animated predecessor, “Mulan” takes a bold step in a new direction. Its characters may be a bit limited and the story not all there, but it sure is beautiful to look at – and a decent amount of fun.

Star Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“Mulan” is available for purchase on Disney+ beginning Sept. 4, 2020.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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