★ / ★★★★
Niki Caro’s interpretation of the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan” is the kind of movie in which it takes no effort to spot the antagonists because they sport dark clothing and wear black eyeliner. Their skin lean toward darker coloration as well. I would be laughing if the film weren’t so insulting, reductive, passé, and, perhaps most importantly, damn boring. Although a Disney vehicle, it did not need to follow Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft’s 1998 animated feature in any way. However, it must offer something else—something special—in order for the journey on this new path to be considered worthy. On this level, it fails nearly every step of the way.
“Mulan” is a story of a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to enlist in the Imperial Chinese Army following the Emperor’s decree (Jet Li) that every family must submit a son so that these soldiers can be trained to fight against foreign invaders. Although a curious premise, one in which a lot of fun could be had regarding mistaken identity and the like, the screenplay, helmed by four writers (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin), neglects to explore what’s compelling about it. Notice that once Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) is in the army, there is a palpable lack of tension and drama. The reason is because the material relies upon one element: Mulan’s gender must not be discovered by her peers and superiors or risk expulsion. Cue lines of dialogue that involve bringing “dishonor to family” stated fifty different ways.
There is some humor injected during the training sessions yet the overall effect is negligible because the material fails to underscore the bond that Mulan forms with her supposed close allies. Only one is memorable because there is an undercurrent to the relationship: Honghui (Yoson An) who gets off on the wrong foot with Mulan (who names herself—cue forced deep voice—Hua Jun) but eventually grows to like her… or him? The rest of the recruits—Chien-Po (Doua Moua), Ling (Jimmy Wong), Yao (Chen Tang), and Cricket (Jun Yu)—are given only surface personalities, merely there to serve as weak comic punches. Their jokes rarely land. When the lives of Mulan’s allies are threatened late in the picture, it is difficult to care because we did not get to know them outside of how they look, act, or behave. A cardboard cutout has more dimension than the four of them combined.
Going back to what Honghui and Hua Jun share, I get it: this is a Disney-produced movie and, for some reason, there is this nonsensical notion to “protect” younger audiences from the idea or mere suggestion of homosexual feelings in 2020. Look closely. Because the screenplay tries its darnedest to circumvent the precise nature of the relationship, later events whereby Honghui tries to show overt affection to Mulan (after, of course, she is revealed to be a female), like giving a knowing glance or softly touching her hand, are awkward and laughable. There is irony: If the relationship were dealt with honesty in the first place, then the romance as a whole would be considered true. It is clear that this is a movie so afraid to take risks it fails to consider what is right for the story being told. Authenticity is nowhere near it.
Another underwritten and underutilized character—in connection with Mulan—is a shapeshifting witch named Xianniang (Gong Li) who works with Böri Khan (Jason Scott), leader of the Rouran army and hellbent on killing the Emperor. Xianniang is a clear foil for Mulan. Both characters are demanded to suppress their innate abilities in the battlefield (“chi”) because only boys can wield such power. However, the work forsakes to detail how the two women ended up on opposite sides. It is not enough to say, “I was abandoned, I had no home, I had no one.” That insults the intelligence of all viewers. How about people in the audience who were abandoned, who had no home, who had no one there to support them and yet were able to come out the other side without hatred in their hearts? Here is a movie that functions in black and white.
For the reasons detailed above, it is without question that this live-action “Mulan” exists simply to rake in money. Word has it that there were plans of making the movie since 2010. They had nearly a decade to get the screenplay in order and yet we get this… whatever this is. Not even the action sequences are memorable. The war between the Rouran and the Imperial Army looks and feels small in scope. The film’s imagination, vision, and execution is limited across the board.