REVIEW / ACTION-DRAMA
115 minutes, opens today
The story: The spirited Mulan (Liu Yifei) is a girl who grows up doing things boys like to do, such as climbing and practising gongfu, to the dismay of her parents (Tzi Ma and Rosalind Chao). After raiders led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his witch ally Xian Lang (Gong Li) lay waste to several cities, the Emperor (Jet Li) issues a conscription order for the men in the kingdom. Mulan sneaks away in military garb, passing as a man, to take her father's place in the army. A live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated feature, which is based on Chinese legends.
When Disney pulls a piece from its animation library for a live-action freshening up, it observes a few rules: jettison the musical numbers; erase the slapstick; delete the racism and lastly, give the grown-ups something to chew on.
This movie proves - not for the first time - that subtraction is easy.
What is harder is to fill the void with content both kids and grown-ups will enjoy, especially if steering clear of a cultural faux pas is high on the priority list.
With this film, Disney has decided to play it safe. The theme of female empowerment, similar to the one that drives 2019's Aladdin, drives this movie as well. But while the tale set in the Middle East soars, the one in ancient China sinks.
The 2020 Mulan adaptation suffers from the problem that also plagued 2019's Dumbo (based on the 1941 children's classic), an update that felt more like a mummification.
For starters, a choice was made to have everyone speak English in a simplified, non-idiomatic manner. This is an odd decision because if you want characters in ancient China to speak English, you might as well go all in, and have them use the language as naturally and freely as Aladdin's characters do.
The next sin is over-Sinicising the exposition. It is the verbal equivalent of crowding a set with "Oriental" lanterns and calligraphic scrolls while an extra in a top-knot slurps noodles from a bowl.
Here, it happens with "qi", mentioned with dismaying frequency as an explanation for Mulan's unfeminine ways. If a word-cloud were to be made from the dialogue, "qi" and "family honour" would fight for top place.
But the worst example of overdoing the gravitas must be the phrase "Loyal, brave, true", uttered an excruciating number of times and now the title of the official song performed by Christina Aguilera. Putting aside how it is what's known as "tattoo Chinese" - the clunky, Google-translated text favoured by those seeking ethnic ink on their bodies - it is a mantra that sounds profound at first but meaningless if one takes five minutes to think it over.
The actors, especially Liu as the title character and Lee as the villain Bori Khan, do a fine job.
A new character, Gong Li's witch Xian Lang is an interesting new character who deserves a better story arc than the one given in the film.
Director Niki Caro, to her credit, is adept at playing with shades of melancholy - there are a couple of tearjerking moments here - but she was handed a tough job.