Like the song said, let’s get down to business: “Mulan” is big, sumptuous entertainment. It’s good, but not great, transforming the story associated with the 1998 animated musical into a song-free, live-action movie that’s more adequate than transcendent — a perfectly reasonable family-viewing investment that’s worth seeing, but not necessarily a must-buy.
The “buy” part, and business half of the show, can’t be separated from the movie itself. After several coronavirus-related delays beginning with its planned March release, Disney broke down and decided to offer the film via its streaming service, Disney+, at a premium $30 price tag. Although the movie will be available to subscribers for no additional charge at a later date, “Mulan” thus becomes an experiment in home entertainment, consumer preferences and evolving models in the balance between theatrical exhibition and streaming.
That has put a lot of undue, perhaps unfair weigh on the film, in much the way its protagonist, Mulan (Yifei Liu), must carry the burden of her family. For her, it’s again a choice of letting her beloved, hobbled father (Tzi Ma) likely die defending the country, or stealing his armor, pretending to be a young man and enlisting to answer the call to repel the invasion.
Those are the bones of the earlier film and this one, which is “suggested by the narrative poem ‘The Ballad of Mulan.'” But this new “Mulan” — directed by Niki Caro, from a script credited to a quartet of writers — also possesses a very “Star Wars”-like undercurrent. Because Mulan, it turns out, has greatness inside her and must embrace that mysterious force (her “chi”) in order to unleash her “warrior’s heart” and fulfill her destiny.
Further driving home that connection, there’s a powerful sorceress, Xianniang (Gong Li), who is similarly trapped by a patriarchal society that doesn’t embrace her talents. She has responded by using her gifts to assist the Northern invaders, whose ruthless leader, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), thirsts for vengeance against the Emperor (an unrecognizable Jet Li).
That structure not only elevates the “girl power” theme but also the idea that being deprived of the freedom to pursue one’s rightful path can potentially lead, well, to the dark side. First told to “learn your place,” Mulan is later warned by her no-nonsense commander (“Rogue One’s” Donnie Yen) that deceit is a one-way ticket to expulsion and disgracing one’s family.
It’s quite a cast, and showcases acrobatic martial-arts stunt work to which many in the US were likely first exposed by “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Gorgeously shot, the film overflows with vibrant colors and sweeping action — some perhaps a bit intense for younger kids, as reflected by the PG-13 rating.
The movie’s emotional core resides in the father-daughter relationship, but Liu’s performance works on multiple levels, finding the discomfort, guilt and humor in carrying on her charade, from barracks life — there’s the little matter of not showering — to seeing how men behave and speak when women aren’t around.
Given the edgier tone, losing the music was likely the right choice, though the song “Reflection” plays over the closing credits, sung in English and Mandarin by Christina Aguilera and Liu, respectively.
There are clever callbacks, but in charting its own course, “Mulan” feels bolder than some of Disney’s other live-action adaptations — think “Beauty and the Beast” or “Aladdin” — which closely followed the animated outlines and came away with princely box-office sums.
Yet even applauding the creative risks, they yield uneven rewards — a solid, stirring film that doesn’t conjure the elusive fairy dust known as Disney magic.
Broadly speaking, “Mulan” has largely honored the story while establishing its independence from the prior version, a delicate operation that succeeds in measured doses. The great unknown remains how much that will ultimately bring to the studio, which, thanks to the streaming gambit, becomes the more interesting question, and possibly the most enduring part of its legacy.
“Mulan” premieres Sept. 4 on Disney+ for an additional $29.99. It’s rated PG-13.