Imagine if a year ago Disney announced that instead of releasing its $200 million live action version of Mulan in cinemas, it was going to pop it on its own streaming service, you might well think that the house of mouse had a few tiles loose. How times change.
With it still getting a theatrical release in some countries, albeit pending the severity of COVID-19, Disney’s latest has gone straight to Disney+ in both North America and in the UK. That’s not to say its free however, as it appears on the UK service as a premium option and is available to watch for £19.99. So the question remains, is Mulan worth the moolah?
Growing up in rural china is Mulan (Yifei Liu). Her father Zhou (Tzi Ma) is well respected in the village, and is known as a bit of a war hero, with the injuries to prove it.
With the Emperor (Jet Li) learning of an imminent threat from the north, he sends out a decree that every family in the land shall have one male conscripted to help protect the dynasty. Zhou, despite his age and physical disabilities is more than ready to fight for his country, particularly as he only has two daughters. Mulan however, has other ideas.
She decides that to protect her father, she will pretend to be male and run off to join the army, so that he doesn’t have to. And that’s exactly what she does, fleeing in the middle of the night, changing her appearance to look more masculine, and sets about army training.
It’s quite a challenge for Mulan – not the combat training, as she’s already well versed on the techniques of fighting – but pretending to be a man, surrounded by the male of the species, certainly means she has her work cut out for her.
She needs to be focused however, as the enemy approaching are set on ending the Emperor’s reign once and for all.
There would have been a time when any release from Disney would have been warmly embraced, but perhaps it’s a further sign of different times that come under further scrutiny.
It started as early as the casting process, when a petition was set up to make sure that Disney didn’t succumb to ‘white-washing’ by hiring a non-Chinese actress for the role. Disney didn’t, wisely, and ended up with a relatively all Chinese cast. It seems a moot point in the grand scheme of things, when you consider the irony of a Chinese cast speaking English throughout.
Then there’s a discussion of whether a live-action film is actually needed or not. But with Disney extremely motivated to go through their animated back catalogue and remake them all with live action versions, it’s less a discussion and simply more of a matter of time until they’re all done.
Possibly the biggest reason this version doesn’t really work, is that it goes out of its way not to offend.
Take the fighting sequences; although well choreographed, there isn’t a hint of real violence, and certainly no sign of a drop of blood anywhere. So you have these warriors preparing themselves for the mother of all battles, only to find them ending up on a pile on the ground. It’s the kind of thing you could get away with in, say, an animation, but in a live action film, it feels fake.
At times you half expect to see Mr Bean, sitting in the corner eating a chocolate bar, being told that he’s not quite himself when he’s hungry. It’s all super glossy, showing no respect whatsoever for what it means to be in a war.
And although English-speaking audiences have no qualms with it, having a film set in China, with a mainly Chinese cast, speaking English, is nothing but curtailing to the pathetic whims of a lazy, English-speaking audience. But of course, you can’t expect an English-speaking audience to have to endure reading words on a screen during a film that would be absurd.
With all these concessions being made, what’s left is a highly sanitised product. Perhaps that’s just what this new normal needs, the cinematic equivalent of hand gel to prevent any harm coming to you.
Director Niko Caro’s film is just too darn squeaky clean. Even when Mulan literally lets her hair down, it feels more like an advertising opportunity to announce that she’s worth it, instead of a moment of female empowerment.
Mulan is the filmic definition of style over substance, displaying all of the former, and none of the latter.
There’s something disturbingly satisfying that the most rebellious element of this film is the disappointing news since its release that its star Yifei Liu has been seen to support the police in Hong Kong against the community fighting for their basic rights to democracy. That’s certainly a fly in the Disney ointment. That’s not to say she’s not entitled to her own opinion – if it is indeed her own – but such an extreme view isn’t necessarily befitting an ambassador of the Disney corporation.
This live-action version of Mulan is an example of Disney at its most blandest, a boring exercise in inoffensiveness. It was an opportunity to create the vibrancy, colour and passion of the exotic Asian continent, but instead Disney delivers nothing but vanilla.