‘Mulan’ Review — A Strikingly Inoffensive Live Action Adaptation

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Mulan Review

There have basically been two kinds of live action adaptations of Disney animated films. There are those that are lavishly devoted to their animated source material, meticulously recreating scenes with actors and lots of CGI help. Then there have been those that take their inspiration from the structure of the source material but shift to a somewhat more serious tone. Director Niki Caro’s adaptation of the 1998 animated film Mulan falls into the latter category. Mulan has no inspirational songs belted while staring off into the horizon. There’s no wacky comedic sidekick. There is an earnest story about a young woman defying the cultural norms of her time to defend her land and her family’s honor. Mulan features some incredible production design and well-choreographed action scenes, but it lacks a resonant emotional core. Like many of the Disney live action adaptations of late, there’s no shortage of technical wizardry on display in service of a remake that never comes close to matching the original.

When invaders from the north led by the ruthless Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and aided by the powerful witch Xianniang (Gong Li), the Emperor of China (Jet Li) sends forth a conscription order across the land demanding that each family send one man to fight the enemy forces. Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) was an honored warrior, but age has ravaged his body and he wouldn’t survive another grueling battle. His daughter Mulan (Yifei Liu) runs away from her village, disguising herself as a man in order to take her father’s place in the ranks of the military.

Under the tutelage of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), Mulan undergoes an intensive training regimen and hones her physical skills in the art of war. Hiding her true gender becomes tricky for Mulan, such as her increasing odor as she avoids showering with her fellow soldiers for obvious reasons. She must also put up a hardened exterior that shuns any attempt at comradery by Honghui (Yosan An), a young soldier whom Mulan slowly has affections for. In the midst of battle, Mulan’s disguise is shed and she establishes herself as a warrior of unmatched skill and courage. As the invaders from the north make their way for the Emperor’s palace, Mulan’s fellow warriors must shed generations of unquestioned male rule as Mulan represents the last hope for China’s reigning empire.

Veteran director Niki Caro does an admirable job overseeing the action in her first career blockbuster. The battle scenes are massive and sweeping, and never does the action get obscured by overly shaking cameras and choppy editing. Sometimes the action sequences rely on a bit too much CGI to fill out the frame, but overall Caro makes the most with her vast set of resources. What’s most surprising about Mulan is just how little the film delivers on an emotional level. The big finish of the film leans on Mulan’s relationship to her father. This relationship never feels fully fleshed out as their bond is only tackled as the film’s bookends. The intent is to tug on the heartstrings and the actors are giving it their all. They’re just left hanging by the material.

Also holding back Mulan’s emotional content is the performance by Yifei Lin, which isn’t to say that she is bad in the movie. It’s just that role requires her to don a steely exterior for much of the film that holds back the character’s vulnerabilities. The lengthy training sequences doesn’t capitalize on the opportunity to have Mulan express her vulnerability, opting to make the sequence the extent of the film’s comedic efforts. It’s not that Mulan is a tonal mishmash. It’s problem is with consistency. The drama isn’t deeply moving. The comedy elicits a mere chuckle. The action is spectacularly crafted, but the emotional deficits ensure its nothing more than visually appealing spectacle.

Mulan also struggles to pull off its inspirational messaging. It’s not for a lack of trying, but the film fails to establish a strong level of conflict for its hero to overcome. The film breezily moves along from Mulan’s shocking reveal to her fellow warriors to a quick forgiveness because we need to get to that last big battle slathered in CGI. It’s another example of where Mulan often flirts with being something more before settling for being inoffensively okay.

Of all of Disney’s live action adaptations to date, Mulan is the first to earn a PG-13 rating. It should be said that Mulan earns its rating with some violent (but bloodless) action scenes featuring a sizable body count. With its more serious tone and lack of songs or much comedic relief, it’s obvious that this version of Mulan is not intended for younger audiences. Fear not, parents. Just because Mulan is a little more violent than expected, the violence is just like the film itself – pretty harmless. This adaptation doesn’t do much to build upon its animated predecessor nor does it stand out in any meaningful way. Mulan is a mixed bag that does some things incredibly well but most of the film occupies the middle of the road.

  • Overall Score


A more serious take on the story from the 1998 animated film, director Niki Caro’s Mulan boasts some impressive action sequences but the lack of an effective emotional core leaves spectacle the film’s most interesting facet.

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