REVIEW: Despite spectacle, ‘Mulan’ mostly stumbles

Trying to do two things at once can sometimes be pulled off, but it can also lead to a mess. This “Mulan” film is definitely a situation of the latter.

The film stars Yifei Liu as Mulan, a young woman who doesn’t exactly fit in at her community in rural China. Around the time that she’s getting forced to meet with a matchmaker, another area of China is being invaded by Rouran warriors, led by their commander Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and magical witch, Xianniang (Li Gong).

In response, the Emperor (Jet Li) orders one man from each Chinese family to join the army to defend the nation. Mulan’s father is enlisted, but he has a permanent leg injury and already fought in a previous war. Knowing he would be in danger, Mulan decides to join the war in his place, disguising herself as a man in the process.

As it’s from Disney, this “Mulan” is a live action adaptation of the 1998 animated adventure/musical film. At the same time, it also sets out to be more serious, take more inspiration from the original story, “The Ballad of Mulan” and ultimately distance itself from the music and comedy in the cartoon picture.

As stated in the lede, this doesn’t exactly work. The movie wants to be a more adult take on the story, but has to be family friendly as it’s from Disney, so the violence and politics are toned down while the horrors of war are glossed over.

The film wants to be more true to the original story, yet continues to go to the well of the animated feature, using instrumental versions of well known songs and having several similar moments that play on people’s nostalgia. The character Mushu was cut from the feature to be more realistic, yet a magical witch who can turn into a bird is featured prominently.

In trying to be two things at once, the movie never really finds an identity of its own. This could have been a charming, more lighthearted adventure in the spirit of the animated feature, complete with the songs but with a more fleshed out story.

Or, the film could have been a more serious war film while cutting off its animated origins completely. Trying to smash them together, though, was a mistake

Courtesy, Walt Disney Pictures.

Unfortunately, the issues don’t end there. Another glaring problem is how they handled Mulan’s character overall. In the movie, it’s shown very early on that Mulan is gifted with having a lot of Chi, which more or less translates to her being somewhat magical.

When she taps into her Chi, she basically has superhuman agility and sniper-level precision when firing arrows. She’s basically the perfect soldier when she joins the military, and it prevents Mulan from having a real arc which causes the narrative to suffer.

Say what you will about the animated film, but it was clear that movie was all about Mulan proving she could do what a man could do. This movie lacks that approach and doesn’t replace it with anything compelling.

There’s somewhat of an idea that the movie is about Mulan coming to terms with who she is and accepting herself. However, the character already did know who she was, and was only covering up her identity because it was the logical option in going in place of her father.

A lot of these issues could have been forgiven had the movie contained more passion and emotion, but much of this “Mulan” feels soulless. There’s little convincing camaraderie between Mulan and the other soldiers, and the titular character seems to lack personality.

A big piece of the issue has to do with a script that was more dull than any old blade used in the movie. The dialogue comes across as stilted and the film noticeably lacks in scenes that allow the characters to breathe.

None of the cast really stands out here either, which is a shame. While several of the performances are fine, none are truly memorable, and there are times when the delivery seems off. To an extent, one wonders if the film should have just been in Chinese with subtitles to feel more natural, not that the Mouse House would have allowed it.

There’s a lot working against “Mulan” which is such a let down because the movie looks and sounds great. The mix of sword-combat and martial arts is all entertaining. Plus, the battles are large in scale, and give the movie a grand feeling. Technically, the movie is on point.

In terms of entertainment value, “Mulan” is alright. Probably not worth that $30, though. Once it’s cheaper, it can satisfy martial arts fans and hardcore Disney enthusiasts. However, those looking for a more meaningful experience should look elsewhere. 2.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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