This latest Disney live-action remake of an animated classic is the new version of the first film I ever attended (while still in my mother’s womb). Director Niki Caro (“The Zookeeper’s Wife”) does NOT go the shot by shot route with “Mulan” (which made me roar with approval). However, this version doesn’t come close to living-up to the 1998 original.
The “Mulan” story is centuries old. A Chinese emperor (Jet Li) decrees that a male son from every family must join the army to battle evil invaders. But in Mulan’s family there are only two daughters. So, to avoid her elderly father from having to fight, Mulan (Yifei Liu) enlists, disguised as a man.
This is a rare PG-13 Walt Disney Pictures release. Because it’s debuting on Disney+ instead of in theaters, the MPAA rating likely won’t matter to parents. Instead of saying to their kids, “This may be too violent, we should wait until you’re a little older” — it’ll be, “Let’s watch it and see what happens.”
Turns out “Mulan” isn’t nearly as violent as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Yes, the good guys (and gal) kill plenty of enemies with arrows and swords. But there’s VERY little blood. The violence is completely sanitized. And the intensity level is far lower than the “dramatic” trailers and TV ads lead you to believe.
Caro also attempts to balance the serious subject matter with staples of these Disney live-action re-dos. There’s a flowery score from Harry Gregson-Williams, and plenty of light/goofy “around the village” moments. We even see Mulan riding her horse through the fields with bunnies hopping alongside. This imbalance in tone is one of the movie’s biggest problems.
The staple themes of honesty, honor and heritage are all here. But the symbolism is piled-on, especially in the film’s climactic section. Without the Mushu sidekick character and majority of familiar songs from the animated classic, this “Mulan” relies too much on the “woman posing as a man” storyline, corny side characters and dull dialogue that misses the mark.
But what’s most surprising about “Mulan” is the downplaying of the female empowerment theme. Caro had all the right in the world to over-emphasize this element (if not now, when?) Only a couple key moments — a sequence with snow and a “twist” — emphasize this aspect. The editing is also very uneven.
There was an opportunity here to make this new, live-action “Mulan” relevant. Upon reflection, it just doesn’t get there.