Movie Review: Mulan

Okay, I have something to admit to you: I’m not a Disney person.

Well, at least, I wasn’t, before Disney took their chokehold on the cinema industry as a whole and to watch a blockbuster was to become a Disney person – what I’m saying is that I didn’t grow up as a particular fan of Disney movies. Sure, I could fuck with a touch of Hercules or a little Mermaid here and there, but they were never really my favourite cinematic treats, and, as I’ve grown up, most of the Disney live-action rebooting has passed me by for this very reason. If I didn’t even care for the original, why would I care about the insipid remake?

So, when I say that I was actually looking forward to Mulan, I think that speaks to how far removed it seems from most of the rest of the Disney remakes. Mulan is, at its heart, a war movie, and that just intrigued me more than the traditional Disney romance remakes that had come before. I’m sure I barely need to recap the premise here, but for those new to the story – Mulan is the daughter of an ailing warrior, and takes his place, disguised as a man, to fight against invading forces in Imperial China.

And you know what? As a war film, Mulan is actually pretty damn solid. I was worried that we were going to be subjected to some low-level John Wick attempted ripoffery that looked about as fake as wise-cracking dragon Mushu would have if he had been injected into the film, but the action is consistently really solid – not over-edited, real enough to pass at the breathless pace its delivered at, and featuring a couple of genuinely inventive setpieces that elevate it out of “wheezingly neccessary action” and into “hey, someone actually cared enough to make this look good”. Stylistically, the film is stunning, with director Miki Caro well-versed enough in period pieces to give this the sumptuous fullness that it deserves.

Of course, the war movie aspect is only the backdrop against which this story takes place – this is, more than anything, a tale about a young woman claiming her power in a way that the world around her doesn’t want to.

The best addition to this version of the story, in this respect, is Xian Lang (Gong Li), upgraded from a seeing-eye falcon to a powerful warrior using supernatural forces to express her strength and ability as she works with the leader of the invading forces. A flipped coin away from Mulan, she’s another woman forced to navigate a world that wants to suppress her power, even if the way she goes about expressing it is pretty damn badass evil. There’s more than a little of the Erik Killmongers about her – her motivations make perfect sense, and, to a point, I’m kind of with her in the way she chooses to claim her power. Powerful and feminine in the same moment, she’s probably the standout addition to the remake, and, for me, the strongest representation of the central feminist themes. If even the villain makes sense, maybe there’s something to be said for the stance she’s taking, right?

And, to be fair, Mulan herself is…well, not bad. Played by Liu Yifei, she’s got the action down, she’s got some of the grit, and she’s certainly got the ingenuity, but the movie seems a little hasty to hurry along some of her biggest moments, like her actual choice to take on the male identity – that strange straddling between an audience who knows this story well enough just to want to cut to the good parts, and one who has never come across it before at all.

I’d say that’s the biggest weakness of this Mulan remake, actually – it’s a solidly well-paced movie overall, but there are moments when you can feel the script tapping its foot impatiently to get to the bits we really want to see. Adapting a story as iconic as this one while trying to engage newer audiences is a hard balance to strike. Even I, a strenuously not-Disney person, knows this story on a pretty unavoidable level, and it was hard to know when the movie should have just been pushing over the micro-attention and when it should have been lingering a little longer on what we had. A few secondary characters end up a little demolished as a result, and the plot sort of judders forward on occasion in a distinctly awkward fashion.

But that all said: even if, like me, you’re not a big fan of this era of Disney movies to begin with, the Mulan remake is still a pretty damn solid – the action, setting, and style is impressive and reflects some serious effort behind the scenes, even if there are occasional bumps in the character development and plot along the way.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via CNET)

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