'Mulan' Will Mostly Just Make You Want to Watch the Original

The live-action remake of the 1998 animated classic is finally here.

mulan
Disney+

The trailer for Disney’s Mulan remake is sort of a masterpiece. It’s a thrilling summation of the story of a the young girl who becomes a warrior to save her elderly father, all punctuated by the swelling chords of an orchestral version of the pop hit “Reflection” from the 1998 animated version. Unfortunately, the live-action movie, which arrives on Disney+ this weekend, never hits those same heights.

The letdown is disappointing and almost appropriate. Mulan was one of the films most directly caught in the crosshairs of coronavirus. Originally scheduled for release March 27, the film had already been feted had a fancy Hollywood premiere before everything shut down. Disney kept hopes alive for a while that it could find a way into theaters before deciding just to put it on its streaming platform, Disney+ for a premium price of $29.99.

For a large household that’s not too much of an expense, considering what it would cost to take a group of, say, four to a movie theater, but director Niki Caro’s remake occupies an odd middle ground. An admirable attempt to de-cartoon the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, it’s a war film that barely winks at the violence of battle and that never really manages to plumb its heroine’s internal life. Come to think of it: “Reflection” does more to illuminate her psyche than anything in this film.

mulan
Disney+

The new Mulan mostly just feels like a missed opportunity. Watching it, you can't help but long for the version that diverges from the Disney model completely -- one that's both brutal and acknowledges the gender politics of the story fully rather than just breezing by them with a flimsy "girl power" message.

Getting rid of the talking dragon and all the songs from the Disney original, the team of writers hired for the job reimagine Mulan (Yifei Liu) herself as a sort of superhero and this as her origin story. No longer just a misfit girl rebelling against matchmaking customs, here, she also has an extraordinary command of "qi," a concept of energy from Chinese philosophy also employed Wuxia genre. She's a gifted fighter from the outset, hiding her skills from her commander (Donnie Yen) for fear she'll draw attention to herself.

As far as the villains go: The invading nomads led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) are aided by Xianniang (Gong Li), a "witch" who has a similar mastery of qi as Mulan. Xianniang is ostensibly presented as the nightmare image of what could happen to the protagonist, but she's also a far more layered character than anyone else on screen. When she offers Mulan the chance to team up and Mulan rejects her in favor of fighting on behalf of the emperor (Jet Li), you're left wondering: Why? Mulan's loyalty to her monarch is never justified beyond vague notions of nobility. And, frankly, Xianniang seems rad, what with her ability to turn into various birds.

There are instances where Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker have crafted sequences you can imagine being impressive at a multiplex, but on a smaller scale the productions flaws are more evident. Like Aladdin before it, it's over-lit and the production design borders on the garish. Quick cuts hamper the grace of the martial arts choreography.

The entire concept of the Disney remake has grown tiresome, but Mulan offered a glimmer of hope for the format. It was supposed to be a reprieve, using its predecessor just as loose inspiration rather than a model for success. And while Caro does take some leaps, Mulan is still more corporate product than exciting filmmaking, devoid of the depth or emotional moments that could make it stand alone. I'll take watching the trailer on repeat, please.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.