Review: 'Mulan' is gorgeous, thrilling and a little disappointing

Mulan (Photo: Disney)

3.5 out of 5 Stars
Niki Caro
Writer: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek
Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li
Genre: Action, Drama
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) –Synopsis: When her father is conscripted to join the Chinese Imperial Army, Mulan, a young woman, disguises herself as a man to take his place.

Review: If I’m talking about movies, the conversation at one point or another will reference my love for Asian cinema. There’s an aesthetic, something about the way they often saturate colors, mixed in supernatural elements or the wire work used in martial arts films, that I’m drawn to. Maybe it is the way they transform their historical figures like Wong Fei-hung, Fong Sai-yuk and Hua Mulan into mythical heroes.

The character Mulan comes from the classic Chinese folktale “The Ballad of Mulan.” There have been many adaptations that include artistic flourishes and other liberties, but the central story is always about a young woman who disguises herself as a man so that she can take the place of her father in the army.

Disney adapted the story for their 1998 animated musical “Mulan,” and have returned to the story for this new live-action film. It is important to note that, unlike recent Disney remakes, this version of Mulan is radically different from the animated version. The central story is the same, but the new film is less comedic, more dramatic and exorcises the romantic elements altogether. There’s also no Mushu, the dragon sidekick that was created for the animated film. The new film does repurpose some of the music from the animated version but is in no way a musical.

Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), with cinematography from Mandy Walker (“Hidden Figures”), “Mulan” is a beautifully shot and directed film. It’s unfortunate for all involved that American audiences won’t be able to see it in a theater. There are a few shots that felt a little too tight (they might play differently on a big screen), but it is generally majestic. The action sequences are coherent and thrilling.

The cast is a wonderful mix of Asian and Asian-American actors including some of the biggest names in Chinese cinema like Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Tzi Ma, Pei-Pei Cheng, and Yifei Liu as our title character. It was Jet Li’s films, particularly the Once Upon a Time in China franchise, that were my real introduction to the wuxia genre, and it’s fantastic to see him in this (even if he’s hidden beneath a thick beard).

Going in I knew the film was going to be in English. I’m something of a purist, would love to have the film in Cantonese, but I understand the economic reasoning behind the decision. Unfortunately, the dialogue is really clunky and lacks the elegance of the visuals. It sounds like a mediocre translation where nuance has been sacrificed for clarity. In fact, "sacrificed for clarity" might be how I'd sum up the script in general.

The film doesn’t quite know if it is a historical epic or something more magical and it struggles to find a tone and balance that allows it to be both. It could have been a little more fun (like the opening scene) and still be taken seriously. Also, the introduction of something called “chi” (essentially a variation on The Force from Star Wars) into narrative the doesn’t quite work. Don't explain, just let Mulan be extraordinary.

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