For over a decade, anytime a beloved property gets a more serious interpretation, we say it got “Dark Knighted.” (That could just be me, though.) After filmmaker Christopher Nolan eradicated the goofiness of the visions that Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher brought to Batman, our expectations of movies changed. We wanted our cinema to be more grounded in reality. It changed again with Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which didn’t take themselves too seriously and used meta-humor to drive up the fun.
With the new wave of live-action Disney remakes, the House of Mouse has been landing somewhere around the middle, if not mostly on the serious side of the scale. This has been the ultimate flaw with these new interpretations. The original animated films had the platform to go berserk, essentially. The animated Mulan character could converse with a talking dragon or sing a song with a cricket rowing a lily pad in the background, and we wouldn’t bat an eye because it’s all happening within a realm of understanding. However, if we were to see those same images in a live-action retelling, it seems off. It all comes down to how filmmakers can navigate the tone.
While director Niki Caro (Whale Rider and McFarland, USA) significantly improves Mulan's classic story with her live-action narrative, the film's tone is inconsistent. It doesn't take enough risks to feel completely fresh.
Like the original animated 1998 film, Mulan tells the story of Hua Mulan (a terrific Yifei Liu of The Forbidden Kingdom), the eldest daughter of a decorated warrior (Tzi Ma). Mulan steps in for her ailing father after the Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders. Disguising herself as a man named Hua Jun, Mulan faces incredible odds and must look inward to find the strength to embrace her true potential.
Caro populates the screen with lush colors that pull your eyes toward the production sets and costume designs. The opening scene features a young Mulan chasing a chicken around her village, and it shows the liveliness of Mulan’s home and Caro’s dedicated vision to make the culture feel as authentic as possible. However, one wishes that Caro would take more frequent pauses to absorb the culture more deeply as opposed to sticking to the narrative we know.
Pumping the brakes would also have greatly benefited character development, most notably in the training montage when Mulan (as Hua Jun) arrives at camp. Those familiar with the animated film know this sequence as the moment Donny Osmond’s super-catchy “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” plays over images of love interest General Li Shang showing Mulan and the troops the ropes. In Caro’s movie, the song doesn’t have a presence. Seemingly only an instrumental track of the popular “Reflections” song plays throughout the film. There’s only one line from Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) who teases the possibility of fun when he states that he’s going to make men out of his troops. The montage remains, but it doesn’t have that same kinetic energy. Rather than get to the montage right away, why not give the troops a greater exchange and allow the audience to get to know them better?
It’s as if these filmmakers feel like they have too much responsibility to honor the original material. But when you don’t take risks, why are we even bothering with these live-action remakes other than to provide more eye candy for this generation’s children? (See this year’s already-forgotten-about Wendy as an example of a wonderful departure from Peter Pan.)
Fortunately, Mulan has its string of liberties, and they are the best parts of the movie. The most notable one comes from the dynamic between Mulan and brand-new antagonist Xianniang (Li Gong). Xianniang replaces Shan Yu, the beefy original villain of the animated film. Rather than paint the characters as a mere “good guy” or “bad guy,” the connection between the two women is more in line with the dynamic between Black Panther and Killmonger. Each has their pains and goals beyond saving the day or conquering the world. How that relationship plays out in Mulan may be a tad predictable, but it’s a good move to keep things more exciting and poetic.
Props are in order for Liu, who knocks it out of the park as the title character. I was worried about how well the film would sell Mulan and Jun, but Liu portrays both personalities with grace. Additionally, Jason Scott Lee is fantastic as the main villain Böri Khan, the leader of the Rourans. Ironically, Lee played Mowgli in the 1994 live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. But as the baddie, he’s menacing and has depth beyond being the mustache twirling type.
Mulan is fine family viewing for preteens and above. (Parents be cautious of the battle sequences. No blood or anything, but people get thrown around violently.) It doesn’t soar to new heights (the film’s crazy editing doesn’t do it any favors), but it’s one of the better live-action Disney movies.