Mulan | Niki Caro | September 4, 2020

While most of the new interpretations of the beloved Disney animated classics have played it safe with their live-action versions, Mulan had the potential to do something different. This version, from director Niki Caro, does not include the beloved musical numbers, or her humorous sidekick Mushu. These choices were made in order to keep it more realistic and to avoid the problematic aspects that a character like Mushu caused within the traditional Chinese community. These choices do result in a film that feels more realistic but the trade-off isn’t without some sacrifices that are never fully replaced.

The core of the story (written by the team of Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin) is still mostly the same. Mulan (Liu Yifei) is a skilled fighter, only this time it’s thanks to the help of some magical abilities, the sort that her father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), a war veteran himself, tells her she has to downplay to avoid attention as women weren’t supposed to indulge in fighting or the act of war. That is a man’s job.

This is put into play when Northern invaders, the Rouran, threaten to wreak havoc on The Emperor of China (Jet Li). As a result, he issues a decree requiring that one man in every family must serve in the Imperial Army. Mulan’s dad is the only male in their family and is old and crippled from past battles. So Mulan takes it upon herself and defies both her family and the law, riding off into the night with her father’s sword, armor, horse, enlisting herself in his place. She does so while pretending to be a man, risking not only her life but her families as well if anyone were to find out what she had done.

Caro attempts to make this a more serious version of what is now a familiar tale. It’s a noble effort but it lacks so many of the elements that made the original work, ending up feeling more calculated and by the numbers. The serious tone doesn’t elevate it or make it more cinematic. Instead, it feels a bit more conventional and self-serious, lacking the sense of wonder and magic that was a part of the charm of the animated counterpart. While there are the expected inspirational moments sprinkled throughout, they feel a bit ham-fisted at times and almost too fit for modern times to the point it felt forced. It accomplishes what it needs to but never seems to aspire to do much more than that. Not to mention, the innate powers that are gifted upon her in this version wipe away the themes of female empowerment, as the respect that she earns is as a result of the mystical Chi that she possesses, not hard work needed to overcome all of the obstacles that the male soldiers don’t even have to worry about.

The direction, paired with the cinematography of Mandy Walker and the production design and costumes all combine to offer enough to keep things moving along in a solid confident manner, even if the script doesn’t quite give Mulan the invigorating redressing that we had hoped for. While I understand the racial implications of getting rid of a problematic character like Mushu (I mean, that name alone..) and the reasoning for parting with the musical elements, you end up stripping away the more colorful ingredients of Mulan that gave it a bit of mystique and life. It does what it needs to do, and it won’t offend anyone, but it feels like it was a film that was a bit too neat and safe and doesn’t really allow Caro to present a vision of her own, which feels self-defeating considering that was the whole point.

The performance from Liu is fine but nothing that elevates the material. She stars as Mulan but it never feels like she commands the screen with the sort of presence that the character obviously deserves. There are some fine performances from across the board, but nothing that really stuck with you or emerged as a memorable scene-stealer aside from Li Gong’s newly created character Xianniang, whose inclusion successfully makes you appreciate what Mulan is going up against both outward and within.

While I do admire Caro’s attempt to not just make another shot-for-shot live version of a beloved animated film, what ends up happening is you strip a bit of the charm of the original and instead have a film based on an inspirational story that fails to truly inspire, instead, it coasts along rather safely, without ever finding a voice of its own.

Rating: 6.5/10