Much like its strong-willed protagonist, Disney’s live-action remake of 1998’s Mulan has had to overcome its fair share of adversity. One of the year’s most anticipated films, Mulan’s release plans were thrown for a loop when the pandemic hit. While the film was eventually given a “Premiere Access” release on Disney+, the one-time fee on top of the regular subscription price did not sit well with many subscribers. Fortunately, with Mulan arriving on Blu-ray this week, a wider audience will now be able to experience the film.
Set in 630 AD, when honour was the most important form of currency for families, Niki Caro’s film tells the story of a fiercely independent 18-year-old named Mulan (Liu Yifei who is magnetic in the role). The daughter of a famed warrior, Zhou (Tzi Ma), Mulan would rather spend her free time mastering her father’s fighting techniques than preparing to find a suitable husband. As fate would have it, Mulan’s martial arts abilities prove beneficial when a warlord, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), attempts to dethrone the Emperor (Jet Li).
Building an army to stop Khan, the Emperor decrees that every household is to send a man to build an army to stop Khan. Fearing for her aging father’s life, as he volunteers to fight since he is the lone male in the household, Mulan disguises herself as a man named Hua Jun and secretly enlists in her father’s place.
Keeping the framework of the animated film, Caro’s adaptation never strays too far from the source material. However, it leaves its own unique mark thanks in part to its visual splendor. The cinematography and costume design are both vibrant and breathtaking to behold. The rich colour palette really pops off the screen, even in the chaotic and thrilling action sequences. Caro draws heavily on inspiration from both the wire fu techniques employed in films like Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the works of the Shaw Brothers when constructing her fight sequences. Creating an action film that is both graceful and energetic at the same time.
Although its technical flourishes make for an invigorating experience at times, Mulan never quite finds its footing from a narrative perspective. The film clearly wants to make a statement about patriarchy and the ways girls are unfairly pushed into societal boxes from a young age, however, it never feels as inspirational as it aspires to be. Furthermore, the changes that Caro brings to the story, most notably the subplot involving the witch Xianniang (Li Gong), does little to elevate the overall story. Which is why some moments, such as Xianniang’s key decision late in the film, play more like plot conveniences rather than true female empowerment.
Showing flashes of brilliance throughout, Caro’s film never reaches the heights it aims for. As a result, Mulan is a film that entertains, but does not completely satisfy.