Disney’s Wuxia moment feels like a fresh start
Mulan, a ravishing transformation of a well-regarded yet minor Disney title, is one of the very few live-action remakes from the studio which improves on the source material. It’s not a slavish reproduction like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, safe-bet pantomimes that dared not stray from their crown-jewel source material. Nor is it a bloated grotesquerie like Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which nearly doubled the running time of the original with mismanaged themes showcased in an unnecessary and ill-conceived second act. Unlike those other corporate iterations, this Sinophilic delight actually feels like a fresh start.
MULAN ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Starring: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, Jet Li
Running time: 115 min
The new and improved Mulan still tells the Han Dynasty story of a young woman who runs away from home to take her father’s place in a conscripted Imperial army and fight off a horde of marauders. But it jettisons many of the cartoonish conceits like animal sidekicks and ancestral ghosts, and upgrades the fighting styles from lumbering WWE smackdown to whirling-dervish Wuxia elegance.
The whole film has a muscular visual flair, with sweeping camera movements and cast-of-thousands set pieces that make this Chinese legend feel truly epic. The script nicely balances the woman-warrior imperative with organic questions of honor, respect, and candor. Two new set pieces, one on a sulfuric frozen lake and another on scaffolding over smelting basins, add dazzling displays of derring-do. Best of all, there’s an entrancing new tragic villain in the form of hawkish Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shape-shifting witch who sports avian talon-fingers and a mournful longing to find her place in the world.
“Your deceit is my shame,” says Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) to a gender-revealed Mulan, but he could be talking about the original 1998 film. That animated hit, well-received by critics and audiences alike, had the Mouse House’s impeccable art direction and visual panache along with decent action, comic relief, a bit of romance and a few catchy musical numbers. But the whole exercise felt like Middle Kingdom mimicry. It was deeply Western in its execution, right down to the Broadway showtunes. Not helping were the culturally tone-deaf voiceover talent: most of the principal actors, aside from Ming-Na Wen’s Mulan, weren’t even Chinese.
Puerto Rican American Miguel Ferrer? Japanese Americans Pat Morita and George Takei? Plus Jewish cross-dresser Harvey Fierstein as one of the soldiers who eventually cross-dresses near the end, as well as Eddie fucking Murphy as a diminutive jive-talking dragon called Mushu? Seriously? Not to mention a superfluous cricket with the name Cri-Kee. Jeezus.
This time around, Disney wised up and enlisted a slew of Chinese thespians, some of whom are longtime international stars. Jet Li! Donnie Yen! Gong Li! Bob Iger’s no fool: he and his bean-counters know that the real money isn’t in New York and L.A. but overseas in Beijing and Shanghai. Mulan represents their most brazen attempt yet to serve that billion-person market, and the casting proves it.
Liu Yifei is great as the titular heroine, but my mind kept wandering back to spunky, spiky Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And if there’s any fault in Mulan, it’s that Ang Lee’s seismic action-romance looms large over it. So, too, do a myriad of jaw-dropping spectacles from protean auteur Zhang Yimou, whose ass-kicking epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers are stone-cold dazzlers. Chinese moviegoers may enjoy Mulan, but it isn’t anything they haven’t seen already. And that’s the film’s real fault: it’s a handsome, sumptuous, intelligent, dignified production that doesn’t really feel inventive, let alone revelatory. Then again, maybe it will awaken some wide-eyed Disney+ viewers to a whole new world of international movies. To paraphrase the film, “That will bring much honor to us all.”