Now streaming on Disney+ Premier Access is “Mulan,” a live-action adaptation of the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan and Disney’s second theatrical film of the figure. This Premier Access release is available now to Disney+ subscribers for an additional $29.99, but will be available for free to all Disney+ subscribers in December. Initially due to be released in March, “Mulan” had its Hollywood premiere before having its wide release delayed indefinitely due to the corona virus, and will now be Disney’s first effort at directly releasing a big budget film for home viewing. Directed by Niki Caro and with a budget of $200 million, “Mulan” is the most expensive film ever directed by a woman.
The live-action “Mulan” hues very closely to its 1998 animated counterpart, with a few notable exceptions. Mulan (Liu Yifei), the untamed older daughter of the Hua family, fails to make a match for marriage, and seeks to bring honor to her family by replacing her father in China’s imperial army. While impersonating a man during her training, Mulan grows close to her fellow soldiers and finds a mentor in the regiment’s commander. After taking a risk to save her fellow soldiers during battle, Mulan’s secret is revealed and she must find a way to regain the respect of her fellow soldiers, restore honor to her family and save the emperor (Jet Li).
The most notable divergence of this film compared to the 1998 “Mulan” (other than being live-action and featuring an almost wholly Chinese cast) is the decision to mostly abandon iconic songs such as “Reflection”, “Honor to Us All” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” The film does find ways to nod at the soundtrack, some more successful than other. The score samples these songs during parallel scenes to good effect, ginning up nostalgia without being too corny. At various cringe-worthy moments, characters simply start saying the lyrics as dialogue, which is particularly challenging when the soldiers are describing “A Girl Worth Fighting For.”
There are also some significant character changes. Mushu, Cricket and Mulan’s grandmother are scrapped from the film entirely, as are any ancestors. The falcon kept by the Rouran’s leader is Xian Lang, a shape-shifting sorceress, who supports some of the most visually interesting scenes in the film. Another significant, and welcome, change is Mulan’s love interest. A romance between Mulan and a commanding officer would be fraught, and her interests are diverted to a fellow soldier.
Honestly, “Mulan” is very odd to watch. The dialogue is stilted and challenging at many times, through no fault of the actors. The screenplay was crafted by four writers, including Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (“Planet of the Apes”, “Jurassic World”), who seemed to mimic the styles and sincerity of a Chinese melodrama. The 1998 “Mulan” is a controversial film for many Chinese people and for those within the Chinese diaspora in the United States, but it is hard to tell if this more appropriately cast film will do much to heal those wounds when the creatives behind the film are still predominantly white. Somewhat disappointing is the film’s decision to imbue Mulan with a seemingly mystical power of chi that gives her abilities above and beyond those around her. While the animated film is characterized by Mulan’s struggle to grow strong and prove herself through force of will and hard work, the 2020 reimagining poses that her strength comes from a mythical ability setting her apart from other women.
Overall, I did enjoy watching this movie. There are enjoyable martial art scenes, sweeping shot of dramatic landscapes, and some interesting camera work. I would say that this film does not seem like it would be fun for kids. Without Mushu or music, the film has very little comedy or lightheartedness, and instead maintains a tone of sincerity throughout. If you are watching the movie with a group, the $29.99 does breakdown to being less than going to a theater (at least in Los Angeles). But even at that, $30 for an at home movie just feels like a lot of money, especially when it is housed on a service you already pay for.
Even if it is not perfect, “Mulan” is the first new movie I have seen in months, and its bigness and ridiculousness is a welcome escape, even when viewed on the small screen.