“Beauty and the Beast” remains the gold standard for Disney remaking its animated classics as live action, or “looks like live action” (“The Lion King”) feature films.
Stripped of the singing and the comedy that made the animated “Mulan” the exclamation point at the end of a glorious run that began with “The Little Mermaid,” we’re left with a big budget spectacle take on the classic Chinese folk tale of the girl who became a warrior.
It’s a rather dry affair, lacking the wit, warmth and swagger of the cartoon. “Spectacle” applies to this tale of gender role restrictions, war and martial arts. But director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) and her team haven’t achieved “epic.” Our best hopes for this kid-friendly action film with a strong female protagonist were a for a story with pathos and scale, dazzling sets and action set pieces, a “Crouching Tiger” or “House of Flying Daggers” or “Hero” without the blood. This doesn’t get there.
The story hews closely to “The Disney Version” conjured up for animation. Mulan, played by willowy screen veteran Liu Yifei (“The Forbidden Kingdom,” “In Harm’s Way”) is the daughter of a former soldier (Tzi Ma of “The Farewell”) and a mother (Rosalind Chao, “The Joy Luck Club”) who have to remind her — constantly — that “a daughter brings honor (to the family) through marriage.”
She’s an athletic, reckless sort who can barely sit still, all dolled up for a meeting with the matchmaker. She’d rather be practicing her martial arts. In Taoist terms, she has a little too much “chi.”
“But chi is for warriors, not daughters. Silence its voice.” Otherwise, all the guys will think you’re a “witch.”
When barbarians, led by Böri Khan (the terrific Jason Scott Lee of “Dragon”), start attacking towns along The Silk Road, the Emperor (Jet Li, of “Hero”) institutes a draft — one man from every family in the kingdom. As father Zhou left the last war with a limp, Mulan figures she’ll spare him death or humiliation by filling in for him, pretending to be a man.
Mulan steals her father’s horse, armor and sword (“a beautiful tool for terrible work”), deepens her voice and, slip of a thing that she is, tries to hold her own among the bigger, burlier recruits in training camp, while hiding her gender.
Donnie Yen (“Rogue One”) is the commanding officer aiming to “make men out of every single one of you.”
But as they train, Böri Khan’s secret weapon, the warrior-witch Xianniang (screen legend Gong Li) is shape-shifting and raising havoc all along the frontier. A burly barbarian army with a witch? What army of men can stop them? Maybe the one with a young woman whose family spirit animal is a phoenix.
That Hollywood cliche “screenplay by committee” applies here, with the screenwriting married couple that wrote a two of “Planet of the Apes” movies and “Jurassic World” adapting the musical cartoon’s story, and two writers with TV Christmas movies to their credit putting their two cents worth in.
The film feels tailored for the all-important Chinese market, but tailored by a bunch of Hollywood folks, and a Kiwi director. There is much much talk of “chi,” the barbarians are given a name I couldn’t place — “Ronan?” Perhaps “Xirong” is what they were saying. Would calling them Mongols have offended Asian audiences?
The female empowerment messaging is more prominent than in the earlier “Mulan,” and hammered home with a new scene that puts Mulan and Xianniang, who briefly compare notes on a woman’s lot in ancient China.
But little hints of the music from the other Disney “Mulan” only make one long for a movie that engaged the viewer on more levels, that lightened the mood here and there.
Lee and Gong Li are the stand-outs in the cast. But then, villains are always more fun. Yifei Liu is better at the martial arts (wire) stunts than at getting across the pathos of a spirited young woman smothered by a patriarchal culture, or the giddy bravado of one who finds a way to express her chi — and how.
I adored the animated “Mulan,” but the best I can say for this one is it’s pretty enough, and watchable. Whatever they market-researched and committee-scripted into this, I wanted something with more heart, better action and at least a hint of fun.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence
Cast: Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao and Jet Li
Credits: Directed by Niki Caro, script Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, based on the Walt Disney Studios animated film. A Disney+ release.
Running time: 1:55