DISNEY seems to have found a goldmine with live-action adaptions of some of its more popular animated films including “Lion King,” “Jungle Book,” “Dumbo,” “Beauty and the Beast” and Maleficent, the villain in “Sleeping Beauty.”
More are forthcoming. And then there is “Mulan,” an adaption of the 1998 animated film.
You will be disappointed if you wanted songs and a dragon cracking jokes, for both are not in the live-action movie. Before Disney released the remake, it had gained attention when lead star Liu Yifei issued a statement supporting the police at the height of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. With anti-Chinese sentiment fired up by US President Donald Trump in his country’s trade war against the People’s Republic of China, there have been calls for a boycott of the film, as part of it was shot in China.
Also disappointed with Disney are theater operators who lost revenue opportunity with the release of the film in the streaming service, Disney+. For a film that costs $200 million to produce, it seems unbelievable that a studio would by-pass the theaters. But with Disney desperate to overtake Netflix in the streaming business, it was a gamble worth taking with the pandemic still threatening lives at this moment.
I’ve seen the film twice. It is an impressive work of Kiwi director Niki Caro whose most notable films include the New Zealand family drama “Whale Rider” and the Charlize Theron-starrer “North Country.” It isn’t an easy task to tinker with a well-loved animated film, erase some characters and re-imagine the narrative. But Caro courageously took a route towards realism rather than fantasy. For that she must be commended.
There are two antagonists: Bori Khan with a surprisingly badass Jason Scott Lee and a witch named Xian Lang played by Gong Li. The latter character is interesting and has a pivotal role in the story. Jet Li is unrecognizable but was able to show a bit of his stuff, while Donnie Yen (Ip Man) is in his usual excellent form. Liu Yifei who plays the adult Mulan carries the heaviest burden. Not only must she display credible martial arts techniques (and she does), but she must also appear and act masculine as a soldier. She did not overact, while at the same time provided subtle comic relief in this action-packed film. I must say though that even with the closeups of the characters in dramatic moments, I could not feel the expected emotional attachment.
Unlike Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that has flying swordsmen, Caro made the action sequences humanly possible, while keeping the choreography fluid. But one thing you can’t fault in this take on Mulan is its keeping to the Disney tradition of entertaining us with lessons about life, about making choices and about family.