Mulan: Review (2020)

The Disney+ line-up gets it’s first real heavy hitter with it’s now digitally released major blockbuster Mulan. A live-action adaptation of the classic 1998 animation of the same name. There’s no Mushu this time around and sadly that’s not the only thing missing from this polished but lifeless remake.

I suppose the first controversial topic to tackle is the dubious ‘Premier Access’ price you’ll have to pay if you want to actually watch it. For subscribers and non-subscribers alike, it will set you back £19.99 in the UK.

This is the first time a streaming platform has introduced this strategy and is likely serving as a testing platform for all of the streaming giants, to gauge consumer marketability. So is it worth it? No. That’s the short answer.

However there’s arguments to be made on both sides of the fence here; one could argue that had Mulan been released in theatres (as originally planned pre-Covid), being a ‘family film’ you could realistically expect to pay more than this for tickets and snacks, for even a small family of three. I don’t think it’s an outrageous demand asking for the best part of £20 for a major motion picture that’s production costs sit at a reported $200M. I do however believe that as a subscriber to Disney+, there was an opportunity to reward loyalists of the platform and perhaps offer a reduced amount – maybe £9.99 for example. Just my thoughts. Incidentally, Disney will be making Mulan available for free on December 4th (hence the ‘Premier Access’ model) so you do have the option to just simply wait until then and pay nothing on top of your monthly/ annual subscription. I’d encourage doing this. Anyway, business strategies aside, let’s talk about the film itself.

Anyone born just before or in the 90’s will likely be familiar with the Mulan story. For those that aren’t, a quick recap; Mulan is based on the Chinese folklore ‘The Ballad of Mulan’ which sees Hua Mulan, daughter of her ailing highly decorated father, take his place as a soldier when called upon to serve in the Imperial Army.

The 1998 Disney animation is revered as a classic, boasting infectious musical numbers, stellar characters and Eddie Murphy’s hilarious tiny dragon ancestor spirit, Mushu. It was always going to be a hard act to follow (like so many recent live-adaptations of classic animations) and unfortunately this iteration does nothing to buck the trend.

We’ve known for some time prior to release that certain characters would not be returning as well as this version choosing not to include any of the original songs but rather instead have instrumental adaptions. The film is portraying a more ‘serious’ tone with a ‘realistic’ grounding this time around.

The problem is: this version of Mulan isn’t any of those things. Divine abilities, fantastical magic, incomprehensible athletic abilities; are all well and present here and so there is no plausible reason to steer away from what worked so excellently for the original, in favour of treading ‘new’ ground with diminishing results.

The story largely follows the same path. It’s worth noting that Mulan is set around 600AD Imperial China, therefore much of the region’s governmental laws are wildly outdated. For Mulan, this means her existence as a female will consist of having to impress the local matchmaker in order to find herself a suitable husband, to whom she can serve tea and remain unflinchingly loyal until the day she dies. Not doing so, would bring immeasurable shame and dishonour to her family name and she’ll be essentially condemned. By modern standards, this would be considered somewhat unfair.

The problem for Mulan is, she doesn’t want any of those things. From a young age we see her soar across rooftops, displaying ninja like prowess and confidently wielding weapons as she trains day and night. She wants to be a soldier but alas, the notion of a female soldier during this era, is strictly prohibited. So when the Imperial Army show up to town in a bid to recruit men for war, Mulan has to watch as her crippled father accepts his patriotic duties. She knows that her father’s body would not survive another war and so she sets out to take his place, stealing his armour and disguising herself as a man.

Meanwhile, Northern invaders are closing in. Led by the menacing Bori Khan on a quest to kill the Emperor, at his side is new addition antagonist, Xianniang, a cunning witch with mystical abilities. This is where we are introduced to the concept of Ch’i, a sort of spiritual magic that allows for great power to whoever wields it. The concept of which serves as a sub theme throughout the entire movie.

Again, the plot largely follows the original and so I won’t needlessly divulge information and for those that haven’t seen it, watch the cartoon first.

Onto the action! As a huge fan of Martial Arts both practically and in Asian Cinema I was wide-eyed delighted when I learned of Donnie Yen’s casting for this project. Most famously known for staring in the Ip Man films, he is a master fighter and choreographer. With Mulan, the cinematography is often beautiful, the colour palettes are rich and the skirmishes are capably executed. This is no Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon but nonetheless Mulan makes the most of its set pieces, offering solid battles and fisticuffs that are pleasing on the eyes.

The film clocks in at two hours. Which for me felt unnecessarily long for the scope of the actual plot. It drags at times and much of the extra padding doesn’t serve as being particularly useful to the overall experience. Mulan herself, played by Liu Yifei puts in a satisfactory performance as the titular hero although it’s fair to say it’s not exactly memorable. That’s not a knock, if anything the many aspects of the film actually do her a disservice rather than the opposite.

Verdict

While Mulan can be quietly applauded for attempting to recreate a classic without copying the original verbatim, the uncomfortable truth is that the risks didn’t pay off. The characters lack emotional depth, the tone dampens the colourful aesthetics and the magic, while present on screen, is completely missing. It’s a disjointed affair that if anything, only serves as a rhetorical testament to what made the original animation so extraordinary.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Mulan released September 4th and is streaming now on Disney+

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