Mulan is Disney’s latest live-action remake, coming in at 120 minutes, compared with the 1998 animation, which ran to 80. So it’s a third longer, and very much seemed it — and half the fun, if that.
No songs. No jokes. No crazy grandma. No Eddie Murphy. Instead, this is a workaday action-adventure that is unlikely to entrance a new generation and won’t cut it for nostalgic adults either. I watched with two twentysomethings who had adored Mulan growing up and were genuinely excited but who wandered from the room after 40 minutes. So I was lonely as well as bored but couldn’t come up with a reason to summon them back. Quick, quick, or you’ll miss one of those dreary battle scenes that seem to go on forever?
Directed by Niki Caro, the story, like the original, is based on the Chinese folk tale about a plucky young woman who disguises herself as a boy to fight the invading Huns, and it delivered Disney’s first progressive heroine rather than one hanging about in the hope that a dishy prince would turn up. The film opens with Mulan as a child in her village chasing chickens across rooftops and generally scandalizing everyone with her passion for martial arts and boisterous behavior. ‘Your chi is strong but chi is for warriors not daughters,’ her father tells her. Her duty, her mother reminds her, is to ‘bring honor through marriage’.
Spool forward in time and Mulan (Liu Yifei) is now a young woman, and the best scene by far is when she botches her meeting with the matchmaker, as at least that has some life to it.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the Huns are on the warpath, led by a stock baddie, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who, this time out, is accompanied by a witch (Gong Li), which seems a bit left field. Why do we suddenly need magic? Their plan is to take over the kingdom so the Emperor issues a decree: every family must send one man to fight them off. But Mulan’s father, while game, is old and feeble so she steals the family sword and goes in his place. Her fellow soldiers never suspect she’s a girl, which truly does make you want to shout ‘You should have gone to Specsavers’ as, bizarrely, there’s no attempt at gender disguise. One doesn’t expect Mrs Doubtfire levels of commitment, but even so.
While the original, which I rewatched, is pacy and funny, with Eddie Murphy’s Mushu (a dragon) always cracking jokes, this is a more serious, darker take, and none the better for it. You start longing for some humor. Plus it’s turgid. There are many long scenes that don’t advance the plot at all. Mulan training with the army should have been a montage over in one minute flat but instead it goes on and on and on. There’s plenty of CGI to complement the live action, but spectacle is no substitute for story telling and the spectacle isn’t that spectacular anyhow. Running across rooftops or up the sides of buildings feels like something we’ve seen a million times before, and the battles are par for the course and repetitive.
More interestingly, I suppose, Mulan’s heart doesn’t pitter-patter over the romantic male lead as once it did and she bonds with the witch, being a fellow outcast female. But none of this helps as the acting is stiff and no character has any personality or inner life or spark.
This is available to Disney+ subscribers who still have to pay an extra $29.99 to watch but not, alas, $9.99, which is what you would pay for 40 minutes. And is how long you’ll probably last.