At this point it seems pretty clear that the kiss of death, creatively speaking, for Disney’s new line of live-action/CGI remakes is a Broadway musical.
Until now, the better Disney remakes have been inspired reworkings of older films (Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon) that improved on their predecessors. The beloved cartoons of the Disney Renaissance (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin), on the other hand, have been adapted with stifling “fidelity,” serving only to highlight the superiority of the hand-animated originals. (Tim Burton’s Dumbo makes the point that loose adaptations of non-Renaissance cartoons can also be uninspired.)
Disney’s 1998 Mulan, loosely inspired by Chinese folklore about a woman named Hua Mulan who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in battle, is a Renaissance cartoon — but the remake, from director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and several writers, including husband-wife reboot specialists Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Jurassic World; Avatar 2), doesn’t treat the cartoon as a sacred text. Instead, following in the footsteps of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, the new Mulan weaves elements of the cartoon with new threads drawn from older sources (in this case The Ballad of Mulan and the Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties) as well as new material invented for the film.
For example, Mulan’s ancestors are still reverentially invoked, along with the family’s “ancestral guardian,” here represented by a stone phoenix rather than a stone dragon. But the ancestors no longer appear as bickering luminous spirits or in any other form, and Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking dragon sidekick has been replaced with a silent, kite-like phoenix that may or may not exist in Mulan’s imagination. The new Mulan isn’t even a musical — a liberty that would be unthinkable if the brand extended to Broadway. Instead, it’s a visually lavish, wuxia-influenced martial-arts action movie with warriors running on sheer walls or flying through the air to kick spears or arrows in midflight toward new targets with superhuman precision. The result, while it doesn’t necessarily improve on its animated predecessor, isn’t overshadowed by it either and finds its own reason for existing.
Most notably, the redoubtable Gong Li plays a shapeshifting witch named Xianniang who serves the leader of the Rouran Khanate invading force led by fearsome Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). In the Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties, Xianniang was a warrior daughter of the enemy king who bonded with Mulan after learning that Mulan, too, was a woman in a man’s world. Li’s Xianniang likewise feels a connection to Mulan (Liu Yifei), even if the feeling isn’t mutual. Hated and feared even by her allies because of her magical powers, Xianniang serves the Khan in the hope of a future in which she might be accepted. Mulan isn’t a witch, though she may be at risk of being branded one. From her youth she has had a natural gift for wielding chi — life force or energy — and her doting father, Zhou (Tzi Ma), a disabled veteran, couldn’t resist training his little girl as he would a son. As she grows, though, Mulan’s exuberant antics — highlighted in a fun opening set piece involving a chicken — are increasingly socially unacceptable.
A daughter, we’re told over and over (a lot of things are repeated over and over), brings honor to her family by making a good marriage; Mulan must hide her gifts and learn to comport herself as a traditional Chinese bride. This is potentially the stuff of Squelched Girl Syndrome, and, while Mulan is too spirited to be fully squelched, she does internalize the pressure to hide her gifts a bit too well. Even passing as a man in Imperial Army boot camp, she berates herself after being provoked into revealing her abilities during a sparring match with a handsome recruit named Chen Honghui (Yoson An). (Donnie Yen plays the commanding officer who takes an interest in Mulan’s prowess. In contrast to the cartoon, Mulan’s romantic feelings are for her fellow recruit rather than her commander, reflecting post-Me Too concerns about romantic or sexual interest between leaders and subordinates.)
Xianniang, of course, sees through Mulan’s pretense — and, strikingly, sees her deception as a kind of compromising weakness, one with consequences. One of the themes in this telling is that Mulan fails to live up to the third of three virtues engraved on her father’s sword: “Loyal,” “Brave” and “True.” The cartoon Mulan’s true identity is accidentally revealed following an injury; the live-action film takes a different path. Crucially, Caro directs combat sequences with flair; standout sequences include a face-off between Mulan’s company and Rouran fighters in a narrow corridor in the Imperial City, the capture of the Emperor (who mounts a terrific resistance, as you’d expect from Jet Li, but is overcome in a clever way) and the final showdown between Mulan and Bori Khan.
At times the wuxia elements seem inconsistently deployed. Long after it’s established that Mulan can run on walls and fly through the air, she has to clamber laboriously over rooftops — but only sometimes — at a moment when speed is of the essence. And while I liked that corridor fight in the Imperial City, shouldn’t Rouran fighters who can wield chi well enough to run on walls be more than a match for a similar number of Imperial troops who can’t?
I enjoyed Mulan, but I couldn’t avoid the sense of disconnect inherent in watching a wuxia-style period piece with Chinese actors speaking accented English dialogue. I imagine the disconnect will be sharper for Asian viewers for whom the essential Americanness of the production, and the shallowness of the Chinese cultural setting, will be more glaringly evident.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.