Disney’s long-awaited, live-action remake of Mulan is full of legends. There’s the historic warrior Hua Mulan herself, of course, the hero of Chinese folklore immortalized in the 6th-century poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” who disguised herself as a man to go into battle in her father’s stead. Her story was given renewed life in Chu Renhuo’s 17th-century novel Romance of Sui and Tang, and tributed, from then on, ad nauseum: with historical accounts, movies (not only by Disney!), plays, poems, a crater on Venus.
But the legends I have in mind are still living: They’re the names on the marquee. There’s the Wushu master, fight choreographer, and action icon Donnie Yen, star of, among other things, the deservingly popular Ip Man franchise. There’s Jet Li, near-unrecognizable in his role as the Emperor of China, and Gong Li, one of China’s greatest and most celebrated living actresses, who — fabulously and appropriately — adds a bit of sorcery to the mix. There’s wuxia legend Cheng Pei-pei, too, recognizable to an American audience as Jade Fox from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but more notable for starring in the gangbusters wuxia classic Come Drink With Me (1966). And there’s added finesse by way of Tzi Ma (as Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou) and Rosalind Chao (as her mother, Hua Li), both of whom, like many of their co-stars, have long since made headways into the American mainstream, with films like Rush Hour and The Joy Luck Club to their names.
This murderer’s row of actors — stars who have all, to varying degrees, led successful crossover careers on which Disney is cannily trying to capitalize — is perhaps the most impressive thing about the new Mulan. As directed by New Zealander Niki Caro and manifest onscreen by star Liu Yifei, who could herself become a crossover as of this movie, Mulan is an altogether just-fine affair. It is soggy with bland action and an oversimple script, self-undermined by all the juicy imperial conflict and menacing wizardry that more or less get marginalized in favor of the movie’s topical but unengaging Big Themes. Mulan’s story, in its many folkloric variations, is a Pandora’s box of potential: There’s war and filial piety, honorable deception, upturned codes of masculinity, and, obviously, a heroic feat of cross-dressing. There’s the fact that, as legend has it, Mulan apparently passed as a man among He-Men for over a decade. Can you imagine? The day-to-day drama of that. The terror, but also the bravery, but also the utter shenanigans, of that. Now there’s a movie.
The movie we get instead is decidedly less exciting, less engaged with the fine-grained particulars of Mulan the person and instead overly smitten with the markets it’s trying to navigate and Mulan’s status as legend. She’s an icon, pure and simple — literally, in this case, as the script imagines little for her beyond the broadest possible strokes. Mulan opens with a young Mulan, in hot pursuit of a chicken run amok, making a mess of her village and souring her family’s reputation in the process. It’s because she’s got a power which, we’re told, women aren’t meant to have: an overabundance of chi. And when her father reminds her that sons bring honor through battle and daughters — meaning Mulan herself — bring honor through marriage, he sets us up for a story that by and large writes itself. Mulan will meet with a matchmaker; she’ll mess that up (while still, to our sympathetic eyes, showing that she’s made of the right stuff). And when an invasion from roving tribe of Rouran warriors threatens to overtake the Silk Road, and with it the empire, an imperial decree will force Mulan’s war-hero father to consider stepping back into battle with no hope of return.
It’s no spoiler to say that Mulan goes to war for her father. And, really, as a re-adaptation of a story Disney has told before, spoilable material doesn’t exactly abound here. But there are key differences from the 1998 movie. Disney’s priority this time around is not to repeat past mistakes — financially, that is. That animated Mulan, with its boisterous, catchy hero-anthems and altogether playful attitude, didn’t play so well in China, where viewers complained that their storied heroine had been overly Americanized. She was too individual. The new Mulan instead tries to have it both ways: admirably independent but, with Eastern values kept tightly in mind, steadfast in her commitment to family and community. There’s even a #MeToo-friendly update: Gone is the animated movie’s (somewhat homoerotic) flirtation between the disguised Mulan and one of her male superiors, Captain Li Shang. Instead she gets to flirt, very cautiously, with a guy of her own rank, Chen Honghui (Yoson An), whose butt she entertainingly kicks.
The new film is all about navigating compromises like these, pivoting from crisis to crisis in broad, heightened, and often fairly vague strokes — in part for kids’ sake, someone will argue, which doesn’t give kids enough credit. The most satisfying but still under-explored addition is Gong Li’s Xian Lang, a villain of a sort, only not really; she, like Disney’s new take on Maleficent, plays more like a complicated antiheroine whose fate as a powerful woman shares more than a little in common with what awaits Mulan should her chi be revealed to men.
But because that revelation never feels like a true threat, because the movie is vague and broad in so many ways, something about even this arc proves unsatisfying. No one expects the Disney version of Mulan’s story to be rigorous — even if the most powerful movie studio in the world could afford to take any risks it pleases. No one expects it to dig deep — even if digging deep, being true to ourselves, and unlocking our inner potential are among Disney and the self-help industry’s evergreen themes. It’s no wonder Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise — just as it’s no wonder that the concept of chi, as described in the new Mulan, feels conspicuously similar to The Force. Which probably tells us where The Force came from in the first place.
A better movie would make that connection feel like a more genuine act of reclamation. It’d have a bit more attitude. It’d take better advantage of its deep bench of action stars. It might even — I know, I ask too much — pay more thorough tribute to the Hong Kong B-movie and wuxia classics it very deliberately evokes without really selling us on the point. Instead, Mulan emerges as a curious act of market negotiation. It is a perfectly fine movie; it will no doubt be meaningful for children, especially those who could afford to see more of themselves onscreen in heroines like Mulan. But its cast, its attitude, its overall eagerness to please — all benefits, one would think — don’t add up to a good movie. They add up to a blueprint of the movie this ought to be.