Disney’s Mulan is a masterpiece: entertaining, sparklingly funny, striking in its use of artistic angles and imagery, and bold in its feminism and its positive representation of Asian characters. But that’s enough about the cartoon that came out in 1998. Let’s move on to the live-action remake, which is in the unenviable position of being compared to its splendid predecessor. What’s more, this Mulan is being released after months of waiting – the original release date was March – and can be seen for a hefty extra charge on Disney’s new streaming platform, Disney+. It is also the most expensive film ever to have a female director, the first Disney film to have an entirely Asian and Asian-American cast, and the first of Disney’s live-action remakes to have a PG-13 rating in the US. The pressure is on for Mulan to be a staggering success, so I should say right away that, well, it isn’t. Niki Caro’s film is a well-constructed family-friendly wuxia drama, with bright colours, grand scenery, and commendable themes. But it’s best enjoyed if you’re expecting a solid tween movie rather than a monumental cinematic landmark.
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As in the cartoon, which was based in turn on a Chinese legend, a young woman named Mulan (Liu Yifei) lives with her family in an idyllic rural village where the clothes are all peasant-chic haute couture and the greatest danger she faces is being frowned at by the local matchmaker. But a band of Rouran raiders led by the scarred Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) keeps slaughtering Imperial troops, and so the Emperor (a dignified Jet Li) decrees that one man from every family in China must join his army. The trouble is that the only man in Mulan’s family is her infirm father (Tzi Ma). To save him from certain death, Mulan disguises herself in his red armour and rides off to the army training camp where she pretends to be a man. It seems unlikely that the Emperor would conscript a pensioner who can barely totter across a room without a walking stick, let alone charge into battle, but the film would have been a lot shorter if anyone had acknowledged that.
Fans of the cartoon will be dismayed to hear that the remake omits the songs, the jokes, and the talking dragon. Caro and the screenwriters have gone for a humourless and even sombre tone, replacing all of the witty lines with portentous speeches about honour and loyalty. At times Mulan is almost a grown-up period drama, but ultimately it falls somewhere between two audiences. Children may be put off by the sight of flaming boulders being catapulted through the sky at our beleaguered heroes, while teens may notice that the awkwardness of a woman sharing a dormitory and even a bed with a bunch of sweaty men is handled with chaste discretion. Mulan winces when a towel slips from the waist of a comrades-in-arms, but otherwise the film is even more coy than the cartoon was.