Mulan should have been a slam dunk for Disney. A remake of a well-loved 1990s animated classic, it features a cast of both rising and legendary Chinese and Chinese-American stars, a director with a solid track record in Niki Caro, not to mention the bank account of the House of Mouse behind it.
The film, released this weekend straight to Disney+ because of, you know, the plague, is certainly a gorgeous one. It’s also well-acted and adds some new elements to the story, but ultimately is held back by some baffling editing choices.
The story is set up as you remember. Liu Yifei is Hua Mulan, the daughter of Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), a respected warrior. She’s bright, talented, and even as a small child is bursting with life. Jason Scott Lee is Bori Khan, a leader of the nomadic warrior tribes of the north bent on invading the kingdom and killing the emperor (Jet Li).
When a man from each family is conscripted to join the army to fend off Bori Khan, Mulan takes Zhou’s place, and a journey of self discovery and overcoming prejudice ensues.
The added ingredient to the story is that Mulan isn’t just bursting with life, she’s bursting with Chi, the life force of the world. The chi, when she’s able to fully connect with it, makes her an unstoppable warrior.
There are two things at play here, one of which is that this addition effectively makes Mulan a superhero story, and one we’ve seen before. You know, the one where the hero must fully accept themselves to becomes fully realised and gain the acceptance of those around them.
The other is that with the addition of superpowers, the idea that she might succeed in a man’s world due to determination and intelligence is slightly undermined. It would be worse if she weren’t also those things, but still.
These superpowers, also shared with one of the films secondary villains, Xian Lang (Gong Li), should be a thing to behold and very occasionally they are, but the action sequences in Mulan are held back by an abundance of editing. Each fight scene is told through what feels like a thousand cuts and camera angle changes. My guess is that this is to make the fights feel faster, but in the end they only confuse the geography and make the action hard to follow.
In one of the worst examples, Xian Lang takes out a cohort of soldiers by herself but you can barely see any of it. In another, Mulan herself jumps on a horse and rides off-screen to mount a distraction during a battle, and in the very next scene, she has that distraction fully set up and functioning without any of that being shown.
The good news here is that the film is very well acted. Each of the up and comers has their moment, and it is legitimately incredible to see so many legends on-screen during the film. Tzi Ma, Cheng Pei-pei, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li all have supporting roles and are all great (even though Jet Li is inexplicably dubbed).
Liu Yifei is good as Mulan and Jason Scott Lee adds some fire to a villain that might as well be a cartoon, but the standout in this cast of thousands is Gong Li as Xian Lang, the witch who only seeks acceptance for who she is. Gong brings real pathos to the role and steals every scene she is in.
At the end of the day, Mulan will be remembered because it’s a big moment for Asian representation in American media, and because how it was released straight to Disney+ because of a plague. As a film though, despite several things working in its favour, it is hamstrung by some bad choices.