Sometimes movies, like people, have baggage. These unavoidable aspects don’t necessarily unfold on-screen, but they color the viewer’s perception regardless: production issues, expectations, historical context. Disney’s remake of Mulan, unfortunately, has more than most.
As the latest live-action remake of a beloved animated film, it has to live up to what fans love about the 1998 original while also battling the less-than-remarkable reception preceding remakes have garnered. That alone would be plenty. But Mulan is also a milestone for Asian representation in American blockbuster cinema: a big-budget film without a single white actor (although plenty of white creatives are behind the camera) and a cast stacked with Asian American and East Asian talent. Then came a pandemic, and now, Mulan is the guinea pig for a new kind of release: a $30 “Premiere Access” stream in addition to a Disney Plus subscription, a one-time fee for the chance to catch a would-be theatrical release three months before it would stream as a regular Disney Plus offering in December.
That Mulan is the trial balloon for this release as opposed to, say, Black Widow — to name another derailed Disney release — is suspect and another weight on the back of an already overburdened film. Mulan feels extraordinarily compromised, something only bolstered by calls for a boycott over star Liu Yifei’s support of the Hong Kong police department’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests. The movie itself feels like an anticlimax: Mulan is merely a serviceable film that’s rather easy to forget. It does not live up to the expectations placed on it, nor does it make a compelling argument against its earliest critics. It’s a movie mostly noticeable for what isn’t there. If you can shut that out, what’s on-screen is often gorgeous to look at.
Unlike a lot of Disney’s live-action remakes, Mulan is not a shot-for-shot remake. It takes liberties, but they’re all relatively small, and the plot of the 2020 film is nearly identical to that of the 1998 original. Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) is the daughter of a noble warrior and disinterested in the business of being a proper lady whose only ambition is marrying well. Instead, she aspires to be a fighter, like her father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) — and when the Emperor decrees that every family send a man to serve in the fight against northern invaders, she decides to disguise herself as a man, Hua Jun, to serve in place of her ailing father.
With a plot so similar to the original, the new Mulan struggles to define itself beyond what it removes from the Mulan of the ‘90s. Some absences are not missed — like Eddie Murphy’s talking dragon Mushu — but others, like the musical numbers, leave an emotional void that the film doesn’t really try to fill. It makes Mulan a strangely passive character, which is reinforced by the movie’s biggest change: portraying Mulan as uniquely connected to her Chi.
According to the film, Mulan’s uncanny ability to tap into her Chi is what makes her a superhuman spear-kicking warrior essentially from birth, a genetic compulsion to hop on rooftops and play with swords from childhood. It is, frankly, a ridiculous addition. There is little Mulan does that feels like she decides for herself.
Despite feeling fundamentally hollow, Mulan is a pleasure to watch on a screen. It’s the kind of beautiful that makes you mourn for the loss of theaters in 2020. Fights are wonderfully composed and consistently staged in interesting places. Despite battles that mostly unfold in mountainous deserts, Mulan finds ways to spill color across the screen. In another diversion from the original, the film introduces magic, mostly in the form of the sorceress Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shapeshifter in the service of the Rouran invader Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) whose power adds even more visual flair to a movie brimming with it.
Mulan is popcorn cinema without the popcorn. Choosing severity over fun, it prefers its characters to appear strong instead of real. While it does a lot of work to look like it comes from a place, it does little to feel like it does: there are few jokes, few memorable exchanges, and surprisingly little camaraderie for a movie featuring a bunch of soldiers. The result is something that plays like a very good band performing a forgettable cover, one that’s more about imitating a sound than giving it theirs. For a movie about a woman learning to own her identity, Mulan cannot seem to form one of its own.