I am very much a nonfan of Disney’s adventure in mounting live-action versions of its animated films. With the exception of 2016’s The Jungle Book, The Mouse has not yet found good creative reasons for any of these do-overs, and these movies have played like unintentional self-parody. They are the Hollywood equivalent of what we’ve seen in politics in recent years: those who’ve always had miserable motives for their words and actions no longer feel the need to pretend otherwise, and are saying what had previously been the unsaid quiet parts out loud. With these mostly tedious reboots, Disney is not even hiding the fact that its business these days is grabbing cash however it can.
Small wonder, then: its new version of Mulan does not, in fact, play like an unintentional parody. Alas, it doesn’t play as much of anything else, even as it diverges from the original cartoon in more substantial ways than its live-action-remake predecessors have. And yet this is not the distinguishing mark that it might have been. I felt that the silliness of the 1998 cartoon, and the insipid songs tacked on to force it into the Disney-musical category, undermined the serious side of the tale it was telling. The limp music and the goofy sidekicks are gone here… but they haven’t been replaced with something else. We’re left with a tale that is so solemn that it avoids almost all humor. And it doesn’t have much life, either.
We still have young Mulan (Yifei Liu: The Forbidden Kingdom), chafing at the limitations placed upon her as a girl in imperial China, where the only way she can bring honor to her family is by becoming a silent, obedient wife to a man she won’t even get to choose for her husband. An active, lively young woman, seeking another path to honor that also honors her own desires, she disguises herself as a boy and sneaks off to take the place of her disabled father (Tzi Ma: Arrival, The Campaign) when the emperor (Jet Li [The Expendables 3, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor], briefly) calls up an army to repel invading Huns.
It’s all… fine (she said with a sigh of resignation and of low expectations just barely exceeded). Mulan may be a bit too simple for adults and a bit too violent for kids — this is like a martial-arts movie for grade-schoolers — but I guess that isn’t the worst thing in the world, if it gets Western kids excited about Asian cinema. It’s all… acceptably inoffensive, if less than wholly engaging.
The big thing that Mulan does get right is director Niko Caro’s (McFarland USA, Whale Rider) visual take on the legendary Chinese figure: it is refreshingly free of the sort of fetishization we often get when male directors take on female action heroes. Caro eschews, too, the exoticization of Asian women that often afflicts Western filmmaking. (Three of the four screenwriters are also women: Amanda Silver [In the Heart of the Sea, Jurassic World], Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek; Rick Jaffa [Rise of the Planet of the Apes] is the fourth.) It’s a low bar, but one that too many movies cannot seem to get over. Combined with Liu’s stately central performance, in which she exudes pride, honor, and a strength both physical and psychological, it makes this Mulan a wonderful role model for girls who aren’t much interested in conformity and adhering to expectations, which is rare in children’s movies. I do wish, though, that the movie was craftier about the spiritual connection between Mulan and the witch Xianniang (an absolutely badass Li Gong: Hannibal Rising, Curse of the Golden Flower), who is allied with the Huns. The movie pops its head above the parapet just a tad for the idea of women having to hide all sorts of gifts if those gifts aren’t the ones women are “supposed” to have… and then it instantly pulls it back down again. But… fine.
If the gender dynamics here aren’t as problematic as those of some Disney movies, there are other worrying matters. Some fans are calling for the film to be boycotted because of star Liu’s public support for Hong Kong police and their violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protestors. That may be a matter of how well a movie lover wants to — or is able to — separate the art from the artist. Far less ambiguous is Disney’s own tacit support for Beijing’s genocide of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China, where some of the film was shot; the movie’s credits thank multiple propaganda departments in Xinjiang for their assistance in the production. That thing about saying the quiet part out loud? It looks as if Disney has decided that ensuring access to the newly lucrative Chinese moviegoing market, no matter what horrors Beijing is engaged in, is something it can openly court without damaging its business in the West. Can it?
Mulan is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for September 11th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.