Mulan is like many that have come before, these Disney classics adapted to flesh and blood: it’s a stagey, artificial approximation of what an animated film would look like if translated directly from the vault of 2D history, a fraudulent tin woman of a film with a flimsy heart, often pretending to have one. You’d be forgiven for thinking there was a thumping red muscle under that glossy veneer. There’s relatively little effort put into making it feel like a movie unto itself versus a self-conscious, overstated, truncated hero’s journey mimicking the tone and tenor of its ancestor. Niki Caro may have translated cartoon material to flesh and blood, but she’s left much of the original toon’s humanity on the cutting room floor. Mulan is a tale for more than two hours. When you’re watching human beings inhabiting the screen, a grand epic is simply not fit for the pacing of an animated picture. The first fifteen minutes hint at an Aladdin-sized disaster, only for sweeping location shooting and expensive production design to save it from such execrable theatricality. The Disney machinery has its ups and downs, and regardless, they all conform to a particular brand of lighting and costume design that recall a Disney Land production, not a $200 million-dollar blockbuster.
Caro is blessed with a lead actress in Liu Yifei who embodies everything that makes Mulan a feminine icon, even if she’s somewhat hamstrung by a heavy-handed script. When Donnie Yen’s legitimate martial arts prowess is revealed and he’s allowed to cut loose and kick his way through battle it’s a beauty to behold, and unfortunately underused. Other icons of Asian cinema like Jet Li and Brandon Scott Lee don’t fare nearly as well. Whether humorous or harrowing, the most interesting moments lay in Mulan’s attempts to hide her true identity while training with her military brethren. The movie peaks when she finally completes a training right of passage atop a mountain, contributing a singular image of her standing triumphant before a sweeping horizon. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is manipulative yet incredibly effective, for once evoking thematic weight in a time when recognizable themes are somehow verboten in modern film composing. An entirely new and perfunctory subplot is added for the sake of giving Mulan a female villain and mirror image to counter, a witch-like shape-shifter with eagle’s talons for hands. There was ample opportunity here for compelling drama, and this is where the script’s hammy, leaden dialogue truly shines like a harsh sun in your eyes. So cover your ears and feast your eyes on the film’s occasionally impressive fight choreography. Maybe then it’ll be worth $30 bucks.
Available via Premiere Access on Disney Plus