Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Need a yardstick for how the movie business has changed since the pandemic began? Consider the fact that a huge new Disney blockbuster has been screened in advance for the press … online. Now, I realize this doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean anything to the average Disney consumer, but as an indicator of change it’s nevertheless weighty. A year ago, the thought of something as big as Mulan being streamed out to reviewers was unthinkable. Now, it’s a thing, and you wonder whether we’ll ever go back.
To the non-reviewing person, the more immediate innovation is that Mulan is opening online, a radical pandemic decision that may prove a wise choice all ’round. Disney gets an influx of cash and a splashy fireworks display for their online service, and a movie with a few tricky issues gets an excuse for not performing up to corporate standards. In other words, there are reasons Mulan might have been less than a blockbuster even in normal times.
Here’s why. Mulan is, of course, a live-action remake of Disney’s 1998 cartoon hit. And whenever Disney rolls out another animated film, there’s generally someone who makes a joke about the company’s reliance on talking animals and formula songs. (You will recall that Eddie Murphy did the voice of an ancient Chinese dragon in the animated Mulan.) For the remake of Mulan, the songs are cut and the animals are silent, although there’s a bird of paradise creature that flits in, phoenix-like, as Mulan’s spirit animal. Yet this new project is a half-hour longer than the ’98 film, and feels it.
And the best I can think of for an explanation about the overall slogginess here is that the concept of Mulan really, really needs songs and talking animals. We miss the comedy and the silliness; we miss the deft way music can illuminate character. And there’s nothing to take their place, just the super-slick state-of-the-art effects that dominate Disney’s world these days. There’s a little martial-arts flair around the edges, but much more martial art: big clattering battle scenes that tend to blend into each other.
Niki Caro (Whale Rider) directs as though dazed, with a baffling lack of connection to the simple storyline (offbeat daughter Mulan dresses as a boy to take her father’s place in a conscription army). Spectacle rules the day, despite the best efforts of the star, Yifei Liu, who brings more depth to the role than the film seems interested in. There are other good people around, notably the great Gong Li, who has cool make-up and the ability to shapeshift; you want to see her character and Mulan go off and have adventures and forget the tiresome needs of warring armies—and by the way, why is Mulan so ardent about serving the emperor when her alleged natural inclination is rebellion?
Jet Li plays the emperor, Tzi Ma and Rosalind Chao are Mulan’s parents, Donnie Yen gets in a few nice moves as a military commander. Jason Scott Lee plays the villain, a scarred usurper, and he galvanizes the film whenever he’s around. But the actors have an uphill battle against the big canvas, and the lack of something buoyant to balance the action-movie beats. Lesson learned: Never underestimate the value of a talking dragon.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.