Yanked from the release schedules just hours after having its European premiere in March, Niki Caro’s live-action do-over of Disney’s 1998 animation Mulan had been expected in cinemas this summer only for the Mouse House to opt, on these shores at least, for a PVOD release on Disney Plus.
In some respects, it’s a slight on a film whose sweeping vistas, thunderous battle sequences and CGI spectacle were clearly tailored for the big-screen experience. In others, however, it feels a suitable avenue for a remake that treats its cross-dressing hero(ine) with po-faced reverence and is downright ponderous whenever the arrows, swords and horses aren’t zinging, clanging and charging.
The action’s at its sprightliest when introducing Mulan (Yifei Liu) as a village tomboy who, to quote her exasperated mother, “flits around rooftops chasing chickens”. Yet much of that zest (if not the Crouching Tiger-inspired roof-running) goes missing once Mulan takes her father’s place in the Imperial Army – a deception that not only requires masculine attire but also, on this evidence, a near-total removal of recognisable personality.
‘Hua Jun’, in short, is a bit of a drag, forever fretting about the dishonour exposure will bring to her family and how best to channel her chi, painted here as a kind of off-shoot of the Force, while hiding her true self. Thankfully, the training sequences are engaging and her fellow recruits a likeable enough bunch. The villains too are enticing: Jason Scott Lee plays vengeful invader Böri Khan with lip-smacking relish and Gong Li exudes silky, sensuous menace as shape-shifting sorceress Xianniang.
There’s no Mushu this time around, and Whale Rider director Caro also dispenses with the original’s musical numbers. Yet the pivotal avalanche set-piece is thrillingly reprised, while an Easter egg cameo offers an affectionate grace note. Mulan diverts and occasionally dazzles. But next to some of Disney’s other recent flesh-and-blood adaps, it’s distinctly second-tier.