WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
To save her ailing father from serving in the Imperial Army, a fearless young woman disguises herself as a man to battle northern invaders in China.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Another year, another live-action Disney remake. Mulan is one of the first Disney princesses that was a warrior, her love story more of a side quest than the driving force in the tale. Strong, witty and courageous, she was an idol to any girl that didn't exactly want to be a princess. In the live-action, does she retain that inspirational power? Mostly yes, morphed into a historical drama with a tinge of the supernatural, painted with enigmatic cinematography and elegant action sequences inspired by the Chinese martial arts films of the early 2000s.
But despite ticking all the right boxes, it fails to make a lasting impact. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what's not working in the film - may very well be a lacklustre story with an unimposing villain - but it's almost as if Disney was so focused on getting everything right, they forgot to add the magic.
Minus a wisecracking Mushu, the original ballad and the 1998 animation are blended into a new version. Mulan has to hide her power - only reserved for male warriors - while trying to bring honour to her family with an auspicious match. But when her ageing father is recruited into the army, she takes his place to protect him. There she hides herself from all around her as an enemy aided by an exiled witch draws ever closer to the Imperial City.
One significant change is that Mulan is imbued with the power of the Chi - life's energy that flows through everything and is balanced by Yin and Yang. It might be more faithful to the ballad, but I am kind of let down that they felt they had to give her some "power" so that she can stand above the other soldiers. In the animation, she used her talent and hard work to be equal to her male peers, and that to me is a lot more powerful for a story focused on woman empowerment.
The lead actress, however, is not at fault. Yifei Liu imbues that character's strengths and weaknesses with a perfectly focused and calculated performance, while still retaining her fun-loving side. It's also a credit to casting that they made sure to find someone already trained in martial arts - and you can see the difference it makes on the screen. I'm also not against the inclusion of Xianniang - played by Gong Li - a witch angry at society's ostracisation of her and the Yin to Mulan's Yang. She serves Bori Khan - a warrior seeking to avenge his father's death - but unfortunately, he doesn't come close to the menace of Shan Yu.
Like most of the other live-action remakes, there's again just something missing from it. It could very well be that nostalgia will always prefer the ones from our childhood, but with Mulan, I finally realised what is missing - humour. I know we shouldn't be laughing a-mile-a-minute and that the live action is supposed to be a bit more serious, but I found myself not really laughing at all. Lion King brought the laughs as much as it did the tears, yet its live action was something pretty without you really caring about anything. Aladdin's remake definitely had its flaws, but they were smart enough to keep the jokes that made it almost as enjoyable.
The laughter is what makes the characters human, and helps balance out the sadder moments of the story. While I understand why Mushu had to go, he wasn't replaced with anything that could have helped bring that lighter side out - the Yang if you will - and you're left with something a little wobbly and off-balance.
One thing South Africa should be happy about is that Mulan is at least releasing in the cinema, unlike the US. It would be a travesty to watch it on a small laptop screen at home where you might not appreciate the full extent of the breathtaking visuals and martial arts. If anything else, it's a stunning piece of moving art.
*Just one thing to note - please read up on the reasons why some are calling for the boycott of the movie. Part of it was filmed in a very controversial area of China where its Muslim-minority is being detained in internment camps, and in the credits in the film thanks certain bureaus that are part of this oppressive system. It's always important to know these contexts so that you know exactly where you might want to refrain from giving support.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE
Mulan is now showing in cinemas