Movie Review: Live-action ‘Mulan’ not worth price of streaming

DisneyIn “Mulan,” Yifei Liu (center) plays the young woman who secretly joins the military to help save China’s Emperor.

There’s a terrifically exciting scene mid-way through “Mulan,” the live-action dramatic version of the 1998 animated musical-adventure, that will make you realize, if you haven’t already by this point, what’s been lacking from the new edition.

What’s missing is a sense of energy and excitement. An avalanche sweeps across a battlefield trapping soldiers and horses; however, the fighting hasn’t been all that original or visually arresting. The clouds of snow puff and pull and pummel, jolting the movie into an upswing, thus giving the viewer a reverie of hope for the latter part of the film.

Alas, we return quickly to what’s been mundane and generally lackadaisical.

I think I know why Walt Disney Studios decided to stream the movie rather than wait for a fuller sweep of theaters to be open across the country.

There had to have been a recognition that for all its $200,000,000 budget and promotional possibilities, this “Mulan” is remarkably ordinary. And think about it, for all that money, there’s not a song to be heard, let alone a half-dozen as with “Mulan” from 1998.

Now that I’m writing about money, let’s get down to business.

It will cost you $29.99 to watch “Mulan” at home. There are no theatrical showings in the United States or Canada. In addition to the fee, you must be a Disney+ subscriber, which is the studio’s streaming service, in order to watch it. The monthly cost is $6.99, which means if you don’t subscribe, you can sign-up for one month, pay for “Mulan,” then cancel. This brings the total cost of the film to $36.98. As long as you subscribe, you can watch “Mulan” as often as you want.

The money hullabaloo notwithstanding, should younger children see “Mulan?” The firm answer is no, absolutely not. It’s a war movie and a dull one at that.

In China many millennia ago, warring tribes of bloodthirsty fighters, lead by a Rouran named Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who’s assisted by an evil shapeshifting witch, are sweeping across mountains and deserts from the north to unseat the Emperor (Jet Li). A decree is issued ordering one male from each family under the Emperor’s rule to join the Army to fight the invaders.

Mulan lives in a quiet rural village with her parents and younger sister. Her father is an honored military veteran. Mulan was a precocious high-spirited child and has this same temperament as a young woman. She refuses to be part of an arranged marriage and throws a meeting with a matchmaker into a tizzy.

The village is visited by the representatives of the Emperor. Mulan’s father can’t serve because he’s disabled. He wants to, but it simply isn’t possible. Mulan will sneak away and join the army, pretending she’s male and calling herself Jun.

Cliches abound. There are overly familiar training sequences, retro jokes about taking showers, warnings about acting like true soldiers, and an extended battle that never achieves anything remotely resembling the great on-screen battles in past movies. Through it all, no one looks at Jun (Mulan) and thinks, wait a minute, this is a woman.

Should they? Yes, because the actress playing her, Yifei Liu, is so beautiful, her lips so full, her body so contoured, that it is not possible for any man to look at Jun and believe she’s male. Or at least not to begin to question things.

For the conceit to work, Jun can’t take showers or remove his clothes in front of the other soldiers. He bathes naked, alone in a lake and is visited there by a potential later love interest — if, that is, the fellow knew “he” was a she.

The nude swimming scene collapses because it suffers from weak writing. The four screenwriters — Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin — go for coy, and coy doesn’t work. It’s phony sexual tension. This key scene doesn’t come together well.

“Mulan” plods along with a series of sequences that often run too long. The film’s first 35-minutes could have been cut to 20. Except for Li Gong as the witch, every cast member seems overly hesitant. She ratchets up the energy.

New Zealand director Niki Caro has no sense of how to deliver the epic feeling the story requires. She fails with her puny battles. Too many scenes fall flat. She also failed at recognizing that she was overseeing a lot of filler.

In this “Mulan,” only two elements are standouts, Mandy Walker’s vibrant cinematography and Bina Daigeler’s colorful costuming.

The legend of Mulan the warrior is a fable about female empowerment. There’s an important story to be told, but it isn’t being told here.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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