“Mulan” (2020) Movie Review


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     Disney continues the ongoing trend of remaking their classic animated films into mega budgeted live action spectaculars with director Niki Caro’s “Mulan”, a film departing from the photorealistic motion capture techniques utilized in John Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” (2016) and “The Lion King” (2019) in favor of live actors filmed at actual locations.  And with that comes a certain breath of fresh air, as these settings instantly bring the audience back to an age of epic filmmaking where directors staged complex action sequences outside of studio confines and within the actual places these scenes intend to depict. “Mulan” is the kind of film where its reported $200 million production budget not only shows in what was completed in post production, but also during its principle photography as well.

     Working from a script written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek, Caro infuses every frame of her film with a level of creativity and effort often not seen in event films that are created solely for four quadrant mainstream consumption.  Here, Caro embraces the art of filmmaking as her camera glides toward and around her subjects in the same graceful manner displayed by the many talented martial artists in the cast.  And never are any of these movements repeated.  Every scene utilizes a different array of tracking shots, crane shots, and aerial photography that gives an often dizzying view of the detailed surroundings and massive settings where much of the story takes place.

     If only the cast wasn’t subdued by a series of poorly written characters and several bland performances, perhaps Caro would’ve had something truly special.  But as is, “Mulan” plays more like an obviously stripped down version of  “Game of Thrones” style battle sequences, crossed with significantly muted martial arts mayhem and Chinese lore of films like Jet Li’s “Hero” (2003) and the roof hopping wire work of And Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000).  “Mulan” even features many of the notable martial actors from the films it is no doubt attempting to emulate, including Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Jason Scott Lee - but the constraints of Disney’s brand hold this back from being anything comparable.  Most of the killings in battle take place off screen, and the ones we do see are bloodless and devoid of anything overly violent.

     When a ruthless army, led by a stock villain called Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), threatens the Emperor (Jet Li), the Chinese Imperial Army goes to nearby cities and orders each family to provide one male to serve in an effort to bolster their numbers against an enemy they know will not be easily defeated.  When a former and well known soldier, Zhou (Tzi Ma), is asked who in his family will volunteer, he is forced to offer himself as he and his wife only have two daughters and no sons.  And with his left leg badly disabled, the odds of him still being able to perform the required duties seem in doubt. 

     Enter Mulan (Yifei Liu), Zhou’s oldest daughter and one who has proven quite capable, but is not allowed to serve in the army because of her gender.  In order to save her father from certain doom, she sneaks away with his sword and armor, taking his place as their family’s volunteer, while portraying herself as a man, rather than a woman.  Now of course, we as the audience are in on this, so it’s instantly difficult to believe those in charge of her, as well as her peers are going to buy the charade, but Caro has fun with it anyway.  Particularly with the running joke of her taking watch each night in order to avoid having to shower, which sees many of her bunk mates complaining about the foul odor she soon develops.

     Even her commander, Tung (Donnie Yen), is duped into believing this obviously feminine looking soldier is indeed a male, as is a small band of buddies who accompany her in various scenes depicting martial arts and weapons training, as well as feats of strength and endurance.  All of which Mulan excels at and often bests her male counterparts, something her superiors notice and laud her for.  It would’ve been nice to have written some of these guys lines that could’ve made them more than just reactive to what Mulan does from scene to scene.  It’s as if they are there as place holders for later when it will likely become necessary for her to save them, or something.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a reason to keep them around right?

     And it is during the initial battle between the Imperial Army and Bori Khan’s goons that Mulan discovers her “Chi” and decides to unveil her true self.  Suddenly, what was once a dirty and grimy battle worn soldier, becomes a clean and shiny Disney Princess, complete with make up, lip stick, and professionally done hair!  She swoops in on her horse and dispatches the enemy with ease, while saving many of those aforementioned battle buddies from near death.  Now there is a bit of the supernatural in play here, particularly given her encounter with a mysterious goddess, Xianniang (Li Gong), whose own abilities include morphing into a bird for easier travel between scenes.  So some of this is meant to be fantastical and all of it is intended to be a pure family experience, so the princess transformation has to be expected.

     But the character herself is played a bit too reserved, and because of the secret she is hiding during the majority of the picture, Liu is never given the kind of moments with her co-stars where anything other than the serious and disciplined routine is required.  We’ll never really know how any of these characters feel about each other because they don’t have the kind of exchanges where emotion or personality comes into play.  There’s even a surprisingly low amount of comic relief.  And with everything leading to a showdown between Mulan and Bori Khan with the fate of the Emperor hanging in the balance, the result is always obvious, regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the 1998 animated version.  All of which means “Mulan” is carried primarily by its endlessly striking visual spectacle, but remains devoid of an emotional core that could very well have turned the film into an instant classic.  GRADE: C+