REVIEW: MULAN (2020)

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MULAN (2020)

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Story takes place in ancient China. The kingdom is under attack and each household must send one male to fight. As Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) has only two daughters, it is he who must go and join the imperial forces. To save her aging father from going into battle, headstrong daughter Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a boy and goes off to war in his place. Once hidden among the royal forces, Mulan comes face to face with a revenge hungry warlord (Jason Scott Lee) and an evil witch (Gong Li), both intent on killing the Emperor (Jet Li).

Remake of the animated classic has lavish costumes, sumptuous visuals and a cast of Chinese cinema legends, such as Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Gong Li. Unfortunately, it is brought down by some very by-the-numbers direction by Niki Caro and a bland leading lady in Liu Yifei as Hua Mulan. This feminist tale of a young girl who becomes a hero in a male dominated society is written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin and not one of the four scribes could keep this from being very pedestrian and cliché. It’s simply uninvolving and dull, despite it’s important messages about equality and female empowerment, and having a lot of colorful action. It’s a shame and a major disappointment. The Chinese cinema has been doing these kind of period epics for decades and even the most routine of those is still energetic and fun. Mulan could have used some of both, without diluting or losing what it had to say, but director Caro just doesn’t bring it like her Hong Kong cinema counterparts, and directs this heroic tale with a leaden hand. It takes itself a bit too seriously with very little humor and simply no heart. Where was the sense of adventure? Where were Cri-Kee and Mushu to give it some much needed comic relief between the dramatic moments. The 1998 classic delivered the same messages, but had a good time with it’s story and had much livelier characters. Everyone is so stone-faced here.

There are some great names and faces from the Chinese cinema in the large cast. Legendary Donnie Yen, who was also in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is present as Commander Tung, a noble and proud Imperial Officer. Yen projects those qualities in abundance, even if he isn’t often included in the action. Equally legendary Jet Li isn’t given all that much to do either as The Emperor, but his presence alone gives the role weight. Gong Li, yet another legendary actress, brings a sexuality and lethality to her witch Xian Lang. She oozes menace and looks good doing it. Jason Scott Lee is a strong villain as warlord Bori Khan, a man on a mission of vengeance. There is also Tzi Ma as Mulan’s proud father Hua Zhou, another actor brining nobility to their role, and veteran actress Rosalind Chao as Mulan’s mother. Of  course, be on the lookout for original Mulan voice actress Ming-Na Wen in a cameo. This leaves us with our leading lady and this is were the film sadly falters. Liu Yifei gives it her all, but is a disappointingly bland and dour Mulan. Where was the girl with a heart full of life and adventure? Where was a touch of humor to give her some spirit and humility? She pretty much wears the same poker-faced expression for the entire movie. She does do well in the action scenes and does project strength, but little warmth. The actress was much closer to the mark as the spirited Golden Sparrow in the fun Forbidden Kingdom, where she also starred opposite the legendary Jet Li.

Mulan is a disappointment when all is said and done. It has some important things to say and a lot of action, but has none of the heart and warmth of the original classic. It takes itself way too seriously and presents a leading lady who needed a bit more of a sense of humor and spirit to make her more endearing. Now it’s easy to see why Disney wasn’t too hesitant to release one of it’s major titles direct to streaming and sadly, one not worth the $30 price tag for rental… IMO, anyway.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 2 and 1/2 (out of 4) swords.

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