Review: ‘Mulan’ live-action remake debuts on Disney+, but is it worth $30?

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews the live-action remake of 'Mulan'

It’s the biggest movie to debut straight to streaming in our new pandemic reality.

Disney’s anticipated live-action remake of “Mulan” premieres this Friday on Disney+ with a slightly different target audience, maturing from G-rated fun to PG-13 battles.

Fans of the 1998 animated flick are eager to see how Disney will adapt their beloved original, while parents are asking the all important question: Is it worth dropping $30?

More on that in a minute, but first, the tale.

Based on Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan,” the story is set in China during the Northern Wei era (386–535 AD). The Emperor issues a decree that one man per family serve in the Imperial Army to defend against Rouran invaders. A young maiden, Hua Mulan, disguises herself as a male warrior to take the place of her ailing father.

Lead actress Liu Yifei was born in the now-timely city of Wuhan, China in 1987, before moving to the U.S. at age 10, then returning to China in 2002. While she has appeared in several Chinese productions, Yifei is a clean slate to American audiences, kicking butt and inspiring a new generation of girls to become “courageous, funny and smart.”

She also finds pathos in gentler family scenes across Tzi Ma (“The Farewell”) and Rosalind Chao (“The Joy Luck Club”) as her loving parents stuck in their traditional ways of matchmaking (Cliche dialogue alert: “Blinded by my own foolish pride”). Unlike the animated film, Mulan also now has a younger sister, but she’s rather forgettable.

That’s not the only casting change from the animated version. Her military mentor Li Shang has now been split into two characters: Commander Tung and Chen Honghui. The former is played by the stoic Donnie Yen (“Rogue One”), while the latter is played by the charming Yoson An (“The Meg”), who may or may not suspect her identity.

Likewise, the villain has been changed from Shan Yu to Böri Khan, the intimidating Rouran leader. Khan is played with scar-faced menace by Jason Scott Lee, who played Bruce Lee in “Dragon” (1993) and Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” (1994), but now gets to show his sinister side, sneering: “If gold is not enough, I’ll give you blood.”

Equally dangerous is an omniscient, shape-shifting witch named Xianniang, played by Chinese screen legend Li Gong of Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and Kaige Chen’s “Farewell My Concubine” (1994), arguably the two greatest Chinese films ever made. However, her reason for existing is a little unclear in this particular story.

As for the Emperor, who better than cinema icon Jet Li? Kids, if you like him in “Mulan,” go back and check out Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (2002) where his Nameless character presents the first emperor of China with the weapons of three would-be assassins. Cinephiles will dig the meta nod that Li is now the emperor bathed in an angelic glow.

Amid the flurry of new or combined characters, there is one notable missing role. Just as Tim Burton’s live-action remake of “Dumbo” (2019) sadly scrapped the comic relief of Timothy Q. Mouse, the new “Mulan” lacks the comic relief of Eddie Murphy’s red dragon sidekick Mushu, who paved the way for his hilarious Donkey in “Shrek” (2001).

Why does Disney keep scrapping its sidekicks? It’s the equivalent of axing Genie from “Aladdin.” Here, Mulan may be the crouching tiger, but Mushu is the hidden dragon.

Instead, the script finds other ways to lighten the mood, earning chuckles in the camaraderie between the warrior trainees. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are no stranger to remakes after “Jurassic World” (2015) and the “Planet of the Apes” prequels (2011-2017), this time co-writing with Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek.

Their script gives Mulan magical instincts of The Chi, similar to The Force in “Star Wars.” “The Chi obeys the universe and all living things. We are all born with it, but only the most true will connect deeply to his Chi and become a great warrior.” Add fatherly lessons about a phoenix rising and we have a packed mythical backdrop.

It’s quite the epic canvas for New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, whose short films “Sure to Rise” (1994) and “Memory & Desire” (1998) shined at the Cannes Film Festival before features like “Whale Rider” (2002), “North Country” (2005), “A Heavenly Vintage” (2009), “McFarland, USA” (2015) and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (2017).

Now, she has the keys to Walt’s kingdom as “Mulan” is the most expensive female-directed film ever at $200 million, topping Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” ($175 million) and crushing Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” ($20 million), Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” ($10 million) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” ($11 million).

Caro seizes the opportunity, her fluid camera swirling around Mulan’s colorful village courtyard, then pulling back for extreme wide shots of the palace steps. The action sequences are shot in true Wuxia style as horseback armies ride in slow-motion and invaders run up castle walls, while the camera turns 90-degrees sideways for combat.

Caro also shows a keen eye in quieter scenes, like Mulan staring at her own reflection in the blade of her father’s sword. Likewise, when the witch appears out of a blurry desert mirage to take possession of nomad, we don’t see a cheesy special effect, but rather a practical shot of her shadow merging with another on the sands of Silk Road.

Filming took place in both China and New Zealand, taking advantage of the natural landscapes from lush green trees to snow-capped mountains just ready to rumble. It’s all captured by Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker (“Hidden Figures”) and set to the sweepingly familiar score of composer Harry Gregson-Williams (“The Martian”).

Throughout, you’ll hear instrumental callbacks to Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score from 1998, but there are no musical numbers this time. Surely, diehard “Mulan” fans will miss their beloved soundtrack of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “Reflection.”

Granted, the original “Mulan” came at the tail end of the Disney Renaissance, a step behind “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” However, like “Pocahontas,” it paved the way for diversity in gender and ethnicity, finally showing a kick-ass Asian heroine instead of the white damsel princesses of old.

Thus, you have to dock a star for originality as Disney fans will once again realize that nostalgia is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways: it makes us excited to see the newest version, while carrying the albatross of constant comparison.

Which brings us back to the original question: Is it worth parents dropping $30?

If that price is too steep, you can wait for it to hit your standard Disney+ subscription on Dec. 4. Although, it would probably cost you more than $30 to bring your family to the movie theater. How about a compromise? Make the kids pitch in their allowance to learn a lesson that with great streaming power comes great fiscal responsibility.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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