Pop culture has been inundated with Disney’s live action re-makes. This machine will continue to ravage our bank accounts until there is no more money to be made – and by the looks of things that will not be changing anytime soon. Despite the previous live action film financial successes, there are serious issues that abound with nearly all of them. Whether it is deemed “A shot-for-shot” re-make, or criticized for not being true enough to the original source material, these films have a hard time getting past the nostalgia barrier with audiences.
So how can you set yourself apart from your peers without falling into the same trappings? For starters, you bring on a female director, writer (3 of the 4 are female), and cinematographer to tell a female centric story. Having females telling these stories brings a certain authenticity that cannot be faked. The very calculated decision to not include singing and cartoon dragons (although, I was hoping), helps ground the film. Make no mistakes, this is a war fllm with a PG-13 rating, this opens the door a little bit more Director Niki Caro to flex her muscles and show she is competent and can handle the budget.
The story is deeply rooted in Chinese customs and culture. A young maiden, Mulan (Yifei Liu) disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her aging father (Tzi Ma) from going to war. Chinese culture in that time dictated that the daughters would be “matched” and marry in order to bring honor upon the family. Being groomed from birth to be the best match does not work with the free-spirited Mulan. Her natural gifts of athleticism and fighting are constantly squashed. Eventually her wild ways get to be too much for her village, her father gives her no choice, she must start becoming a maiden and put away her passions, for the good of the family. The highlighting of non-conformity to gender stereotypes and expectations is another great breath of fresh air.
Including a completely Asian cast was another excellent decision, a veritable who’s who of Chinese cinema. Jet Li is unrecognizable as the Emperor, Donnie Yen delivers another great performance as Commander Yen, and Yifei Liu is the ultimate warrior. She embodies the roll of a superhero, and her presence on screen undeniable. The influence of Chinese cinema is also very present, the choreographed fight scenes are very reminiscent of the films The House of Flying Daggers or Hero. There is so much beauty in the artistry that is unfolding, it is unfortunate that there is not more.
The negatives don’t start to make themselves known until about 20 minutes into the film, the slow pace in establishing the characters brings the viewer out of it – long enough to draw comparisons and long for a talking dragon – what’s even worse is once the characters are established there is absolutely zero development from anyone aside from Mulan. The stakes are high, this is a war film, but with this many shallow characters staying invested was hard.
There are still more positives. The cinematography is stunning, shooting on locations around New Zealand and China, the costumes and sets all adding to the epic scope of the film. Completing that epic scope is a score from Harry Gregson-Williams that certainly stands out. With enough nods and musical motifs to satiate super fans, it would seem that this is on the better side of Disney re-makes, a low bar to be sure, but there is plenty of fun.
3 out of 5