Here we go again.
It’s been a long time coming, almost exactly six months since it was originally scheduled to show in theaters.
But after all this time, Disney finally decided to release the live action remake of “Mulan.”
And like many films this year, “Mulan” also forgoed a traditional theatrical release, and instead went straight to Disney’s online streaming service, Disney+.
This time though, it’s a bit different than your typical straight to video release.
To watch “Mulan,” not only do you have to pay the typical monthly $6.99 subscription for Disney+. You also have to pony up an additional fee of $29.99 for what Disney is calling “Premier Access.”
That is, until December 4, when “Mulan” will be available to all Disney+ subscribers at no additional charge.
It’s definitely an interesting release strategy. Granted, it isn’t exactly ideal for someone like myself, who tends to watch new movies all by themselves.
But I can see families, especially ones with a number of children, seeing the price of “Mulan” as a bargain. At least when compared to going to a movie theater, paying for multiple tickets, popcorn, snacks, drinks, not to mention gas, and dealing with the headache of wrangling that many kids from one place to another.
Instead, you can just watch the film in the comfort of your own home.
And since it’s not a rental, you’re really only paying for early access. You can watch the movie as many times as you want, for as long as you want. As least as long as you stay subscribed to Disney+.
The real question though, is it worth it?
Was this latest live action reimagining worth the wait, or did Disney do a disservice to yet another of their beloved animated classics?
Well, no sense in dilly-dallying. Let’s get straight to the review.
The only movie this week is “Mulan.”
When the Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders, Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, steps in to take the place of her ailing father.
Masquerading as a man, she is tested every step of the way and must harness her inner-strength and embrace her true potential.
Like many of the Disney animated features released in the 90s, during the Disney Renaissance, the original 1998 film was a huge part of my childhood.
I can’t tell you how many times me and my older brother and sister must have watched this movie.
I don’t think I even quite realized until rewatching it this past Friday, where I found I could perfectly predict each line of dialogue, without even a moment’s hesitation.
Like most kids that age, if I enjoyed a movie or TV show, I ended up watching it an absurd number of times.
And what’s not to like?
The film is well animated, and beautiful to look at. The characters are ridiculously likeable, and hilarious to boot. The dialogue is snappy, yet often quite touching. And the songs are insanely catchy.
Not to mention the movie has one of the greatest training montages in cinematic history. I’d go as far to rank the sequence during “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” right up there with the likes of “The Karate Kid” and “Rocky.”
Plus, like many Disney films from that era, the pacing never lets up. It never pauses for even the briefest second. There’s no filler. No pointless expository dialogue. So there’s no chance for even the youngest audience members to feel anything remotely resembling boredom.
Does the film have its issues? Well, sure.
Many of the comedic moments involving Mulan impersonating a man probably wouldn’t fly in today’s more politically correct environment.
And the narrative itself, while brisk and well paced, begins to fall apart somewhat when you think about it too much.
So when I heard that this live action reimagining would not be a shot-for-shot remake of the animated film, I wasn’t terribly surprised. Nor was I remotely upset.
Quite frankly, I think the live action remakes which have stayed the most loyal to their original animated counterparts, have also been the worst ones of the lot.
Nowhere has this been more evident in last year’s “live action” remake of “The Lion King.”
Disney basically took the same exact movie, made the animals look realistic, and called it good. Sure, they added a couple new scenes and removed one of Disney’s best villain songs, but the story and the characters were essentially the same.
And it was awful. It’s like they took the original movie and extracted its soul. What was left still looked like “The Lion King,” but felt like the pale, dead reflection of the animated film.
The same can be said for the live action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” only they managed to pack in an additional 45 minutes of pointless extra scenes instead of just 30.
The remakes which have done something slightly different with the source material, like “The Jungle Book” and “Cinderella” have fared somewhat better. Though as Tim Burton’s remakes of both “Dumbo” and “Alice in Wonderland” have proved, different doesn’t always mean good.
So what exactly does the live action “Mulan” do that differs from the 1998 original?
How about nearly everything?
For starters, the tone here is completely different.
While the cartoon is a straight up slapstick musical comedy, this version has almost no comedy, and all the original musical numbers are completely absent, beyond being used as background music on occasion.
Speaking of comedy, Eddie Murphy’s character Mushu from the 1998 film is nowhere to be found, and is instead replaced by a notably silent mythological bird known as a phoenix, who shows up to visually inspire Mulan during her darkest moments.
Let’s see. Mulan also has a younger sister in this new version. She doesn’t do anything of note in the film, so her inclusion is pointless.
Oh, this movie has not only one, but two bad guys in the mix this time around.
Instead of Shan Yu, we have a new baddie by the name of Bori Khan. He’s pretty similar to Shan Yu, beyond not having gray skin, yellow eyes, and not being the least bit intimidating, so there isn’t much point in talking about him.
But then there’s our second villain. A witch named Xian Lang (Gong Li) who has the ability to shapeshift into other people, plus can transform into a select variety of avian creatures. Notably a hawk, and a massive swarm of hundreds of black birds.
We’ll get back to her.
This movie starts off a little earlier in Mulan’s life, showing her as a girl.
Unsurprisingly, she’s already doing things unbecoming of a young lady. Like playing with a stick. Or using her inner chi to perform seemingly impossible physical feats.
These stunts look shockingly sloppy. Both in choreography and editing. It just looks fake. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d almost say it seemed like the film was trying to satirize martial art movies.
It looked more like something I’d expect from a half-baked YouTube comedy sketch, instead of a feature film produced by Disney.
Speaking of shoddy production value, there’s the sets and the costumes here.
Mulan’s village looks very much like a movie set, and not in a good way. I think a big reason for this is because of how the movie was filmed. There’s so many wide shots where the camera is all the way back and above the actors, probably on a crane, and you’re just able to see how lifeless and empty it all is.
This brings me to the costumes, none of which look like they’ve been worn a single day in their lives.
This is a fairly modest medieval Chinese village, but all the outfits are all garishly bright and clearly brand new.
I’m not saying I wanted to see Mulan and her family live in a dirty hovel, with brown clothing and covered head to toe in mud, but it would have been nice if the world looked lived in. And it simply doesn’t.
Anyway, Mulan quickly grows up, and we have our scene with the matchmaker.
Much like in the original film, it doesn’t go very well, and Mulan makes her family look bad.
But unlike the animated film, there’s no scene with Mulan’s father comforting her and trying to cheer her up.
In fact, there’s hardly any moments dedicated to building a positive relationship between Mulan and her father.
There’s one scene, as a girl, where Mulan’s dad tells her to conceal her abundance of chi, along with some exposition about the phoenix. There’s a scene later, around the dinner table, where he yells at her. And there’s a scene where he tells her that going off to war and dying is the honorable thing to do.
You know what isn’t there though? A scene, any scene, showing a strong mutual love between Mulan and her father. A love so strong, she decides to risk her own life, her own honor, to save him from inevitably dying in battle.
That motivation, which is at the heart of Mulan’s story in the animated film, is completely missing from this live action version.
Because of this, her decision to run away from home and join the army feels completely unmotivated. Like she only does it because that’s what the script told her to do.
Moving on to the army, the distinct and memorable comrades from the animated film are all gone and replaced by completely forgettable standings. Sure, some of them have the same names, like Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po, but none of them are remotely as endearing.
There’s also a couple new soldiers, including one named after the cricket in the animated film. He’s notable for being timid, and that’s about it.
Mulan’s love interest from the original film, Li Shang, is replaced by a lower ranked recruit named Chen Honghui (Yoson An). Instead of a soldier-commander relationship, the pair has more of a rivalry going on between the two of them.
Oddly enough, in a way their exchanges reminded me a little of Maverick’s and Iceman’s jousting in “Top Gun” of all things. Read into that as much as you wish.
I didn’t hate this change. Heck, I probably wouldn’t have minded any of these changes if they had only managed to make any of these characters the slightest bit endearing.
I don’t think I liked anyone in this movie.
Mulan seems dull and dead inside, at least when compared to her more lively animated counterpart.
I can only think of one scene where she comes across as even the slightest bit relatable. When Mulan’s being ushered off to the matchmaker, she and her sister are commenting on the ridiculous amount of makeup they’re forced to wear.
She even smiles and makes a few quips. But just as quickly as the scene starts, it’s already over, and we’re back to boring, serious Mulan. A woman who has none of the charisma or charm necessary to carry a feature film such as this.
The only other person I suppose I could remotely come close to defining as a lead character is Xian Lang, the shapeshifting witch I mentioned before.
But she’s somehow even less interesting than Mulan is.
The addition of her and her half-baked character arch feels completely pointless to me. Why throw in a rival, whose main purpose is to tempt Mulan to the darkside of the force?
I’m not being facetious. The filmmakers actually include a scene ripped straight from “Star Wars” where Xian Lang tries to get Mulan to switch sides so they could join their power together.
As if that wasn’t enough, the filmmakers also do a halfhearted nod to the 1960’s epic “Spartacus,” where all the soldiers stand up and vouch for Mulan.
These scenes would be fine. Maybe even welcomed homages if the narrative leading up to them had managed to carry even the least bit of emotional weight, or if the characters had shown the slightest bit of humanity.
But they don’t. So these moments stick out like the sour thumbs that they are.
I suppose if there were any aspects that redeemed this film even the slightest bit, it would be bits and pieces of the action, and a few of the locations. Once you get outside Mulan’s boring village, there are some beautiful sights to be seen.
As for the action, not all the scenes are good mind you. In fact, I’d say most of them aren’t with their too close framing and dozens of unnecessary cuts.
But there is some cool choreography, and some clever camera work to be found here and there.
There’s a nifty technique where the camera operator tilts the camera to follow the character’s movements as they go from vertical, to horizontal, and back again. It reminded me of Leigh Whannell’s films, “Upgrade” and “The Invisible Man,” though I don’t know that he himself came up with the idea.
Regardless, it works well for this movie, where martial artists are frequently flying through the air, and even walking on walls occasionally.
Overall though, I really don’t see the point of this film, except as a way for Disney to use nostalgia to milk their most loyal fans.
I am glad the filmmakers didn’t just do a shot-for-shot remake of the animated movie. There’s no way the slapstick or comedic dialogue would have translated very well to a live action film in 2020.
That said, what they changed ended up being at the detriment of the narrative.
The brisk pacing of the animated film is nowhere to be found, and the story just doesn’t have a natural flow to it.
Plus, like many of these remakes, the characters feel like they’re just going through the motions. There’s no weight behind it beyond any of their actions.
The soaring emotional peaks of triumph are gone, as are the devastating moments where our characters are at their lowest. It feels like watching a flatline on an electrocardiogram.
This film is dead, lifeless, utterly pointless, and certainly not worth the $30 premium Disney is soliciting.
“Mulan” is rated PG-13 and is available to stream on Disney+ with Premier Access for an additional $29.99.