Movie review: Strong heroine props up inert script in live-action remake of ‘Mulan’
What started off so well with “The Jungle Book” has become an unwieldy monster for Disney’s cash-induced play to turn all of its animated properties into live-action extravaganzas. The latest of these mini-disasters is “Mulan,” the ancient-China-set tale of a young girl pinching her father’s sword and doing it for herself by pretending to be a man to infiltrate the Imperial Army in a bid to save the emperor from a dastardly coup.
No doubt, it’s a thing of beauty, brimming with spectacle and grandeur. But somewhere someone missed the irony of all the visuals for this humanoid version being the result of computer-generated animation. The only thing “real” are the actors delivering the script’s stilted (too much sword talk!) dialogue in front of massive green screens. And not doing it all that well.
Yet, there’s much to be said for the film’s “you-go-girl” message that can’t help but inspire little daughters everywhere to want to aspire to be like Hua Mulan, a young woman putting zero limits on her immense skills at samurai swashbuckling. She’s like Simone Biles with a sharp, gleaming blade in hand, swinging from rooftops, doing backflips and pouncing on her prey like a hungry leopard. What’s great is that newcomer Yifei Liu makes it all look so effortless as China’s last hope to stave off a full-on attack from anarchist led by the evil Hun Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his sorceress companion, Xianniang (Gong Li).
This being ancient China and all, women are persona non grata. So, drag out the old girl-in-drag trope. Presto, Mulan is now the highly unconvincing Hua Jun. Her “disguise” is fooling no one except her fellow recruits who think the only thing peculiar about their comrade is her acrid scent enhanced by Jun never showering with the boys - or anyone, for that matter. Pew! We, however, can plainly see the stunning beauty behind the stench is all woman.
Yes, I’m nitpicking, but when the story is as lackadaisical as the one cranked out by no fewer than four writers, you tend to focus on such matters. Dull doesn’t begin to capture the utter lack of energy, and unlike the cartoon version, there are no songs or humor to pump it up. Yes, Kiwi director Niki Caro (the overrated “Whale Rider”) plays it straight down the line, as if the fate of all of China is on the line. OK, it is, but come on! This is an enterprise seriously in need of the kind of spark humor might well have provided.
We get the usual array of “princess” sidekicks - all-male - including the rote chubbo providing limited comic relief and the attractive guy with dimples intriguing Mulan just enough to prove she’s not gay. How Disney of them! But these guys are DOA in terms of holding any presence. The only character with an ounce of pizzazz beyond Yifei is the incomparable Tzi Ma (“The Farewell”) as Mulan’s lovingly strict Papa. I’m sorry, but Tzi is a treasure and, hopefully, his excellent turn here will finally earn him long-overdue household status in the States. But I digress.
Still, it’s not enough to justify the exorbitant price tag of $29.99 Disney has slapped on “Mulan” on top of making it available only to customers of the Mouse’s streaming service. Ouch! That’s a lot of yuan for families strapped by the coronavirus impact. But if it keeps the kids quiet long enough for Mom to finish filing her financial reports, well worth it. Right?
Ah, but therein lay “Mulan’s’’ staggering weakness: Children are going to think it a bore. Without that “Frozen” mix of humor and song, this “Mulan” is flat and inert. And parents be warned that it’s also surprisingly violent, thus the PG-13 rating. The body piercings via arrows and swords will definitely give the littlest ones nightmares. Heck, they kept me up all night. Luckily, all I had to do was go to Disney+, click on “Mulan,” and in no time I was fast asleep.
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
Cast includes Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee, Jet Li and Tzi Ma. Available for $29.99 to Disney Plus subscribers only.
(PG-13 for sequences of violence.)