Let’s get down to business: Disney is now making more remakes than they are original animations. That has become the market of the day. They have tried on all the approaches, from literal computer-generated translations to side-stories that explore another avenue of the original. Mulan threads the middle of the concepts, feeling both true to the major beats of its source material, while also cultivating its own feeling. This time, Disney has given Niko Caro the reigns to enforce her own vision. The resultant movie differentiates itself by being truly directed, with a camera that is liberated to move and create its own magic through inventive cinematography, which proves to be the right method going forward.
Balance is the right word. The changes to the story are done with thoughtful consideration. Most apparent are the musical changes. The music no longer contains words, although the most popular one-liner refrains are spoken while Harry Gregson-Williams’ handsome score punctuates the moments where they once were. Evocative is another word. Mulan evokes the original without ever feeling wholly literalized — Caro imparts just enough new value that it warrants another movie, while still retreading enough nostalgic value that it remains Mulan.
The best part is the freedom of the camera. It can move fluidly and often does move with the action. It’ll throw itself sideways against a wall if some soldiers are climbing up it, or careen through a battle sequence, following an arrow. It works as a steady complement to the filmmaking, while it’s able to frame certain sequences with ideas pulled from other Chinese action classics.
An ornate tapestry of color and form, the film is awash in reds and takes great pains to create a vivid and believable space. It has wonderful old Chinese architecture that plays well into the action, whether it’s being scaled or platformed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)-like wuxia (martial hero) set pieces. The costuming is downright ornate, carefully designed by Bina Daigeler, who will likely win awards for it.
The actors properly show up. Liu Yifei gets an actionable turn as Mulan. She is good and has some fine battlefield performances but is also able to gauge her emotional moments. Xianniang (Li Gong) provides a good addition, a well-considered counter-balance. In a fun bit of casting, Jet Li plays the Emporer. What’s tragically missing is the deuteragonist dragon Mushu, once played by Eddie Murphy, now non-existent in the new film.
Where the past few films have pandered directly to our own box office, the chief concern of Mulan seems to be the appeasement of the Chinese market. That is where the money is. When the market has outpaced our own through sheer will of dollars spent, it requires more movies to be made for it. Rather than literally remaking the Disney animation, then, key elements of the original are dropped, when the film prefers to honor the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. The issue here is neither black nor white — whether it improves or hampers the film — it does both.
The film has certainly gone out of its way to appease China. It is the true reason for the lack of singing and sidekick, which feels semi-disheartening. This both lends it a certain flavor and a questionable layer of politics that have extended to remarks from its star. Actress Liun Yifei may take a good turn as Mulan, but her comments in favor of the Hong Kong police and against protestors are deeply troubling. During a time where our own country is embroiled in its own discussion of systemic issues, it’s difficult to give a blanket endorsement that the star of the film is empowering or a good model for youth when her views are antagonistic. When making a choice about Mulan, it is useful information. Know what you’re supporting.
Mulan is Mulan. What does its reflection show? Caro has leveraged the original text in a new format. She finds balance and poise behind the camera while the action in front of the camera is well considered. It loses some of the fun-loving spirit of the original in the name of Chinese tradition, but the heart of the thing stands. It may not have brought honor to us all, but empowerment remains the central conceit of Mulan, and it is more than sufficient in that aspect.