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Anyone for a live-action remake of a much-loved animation?

The latest of Disney’s live-action makeovers of its own back catalogues continues a “so-what?” run of remakes – Jungle Book, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo to name a few. They’re not bad films exactly – no, hang on, Dumbo is – but how many of them have been necessary, what are Disney playing at exactly, and how long before Snow White?

Junking the songs and comedy sidekicks of the 1998 animation, this Mulan sticks fairly close to the original Chinese folk tale, first written down about 1,600 years ago, of a feisty young woman skilled in combat who, fearing for her sick father’s life, takes his place when the call comes for every family in the land to provide a male to defend the realm against invasion.

Disguising herself as a man, and keeping her awe-inspiring martial-arts skills as under wraps as her tightly bound breasts, off she goes. And of we go too, into a film that never really goes anywhere at all – Mulan (here played by Yifei Liu) arriving first for induction and training with other raw recruits, among them the handsome and spirited Honghui (Yoson An), before the army heads out to meet a direct challenge from Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his invading force, aided by a shapeshifting witch (Gong Li) who tips the odds in the invaders’ favour.

After that, one further plot curlicue shifts the action back to the capital, where the Emperor himself (Jet Li) is now under threat, and suddenly (if two hours can be considered “suddenly”) it’s all over.

Not much happens, in other words, and there is a distinct lack of “stakes” throughout – Will Mulan’s life be in danger when her fellow soldiers find out she’s a man? Will there be a showdown with Gong Li’s Xianniang? Will the invader prevail? None of it ever seems in any great doubt.

Adding to the lack of drama is the mixed message being offered by Disney. Urged on by Xianniang – her “go, girl” advice to Mulan delivered Bond villain-style while they spar – Mulan eventually reveals herself to be a young woman to her fellow soldiers, and so comes into her own.

No surprise here – this “personal realisation” line has been Disney’s go-to position for decades. However, when Xianniang only seconds after offering the advice hurls a throwing star at Mulan, it’s only the cloth binding Mulan’s breasts that saves her. The lie prevails!

It’s not the only instance of solid positions being undercut by contradictory choices. Why, for instance, hire Niki Caro to direct an action movie? One reason might be because Caro directed 2002’s Whale Rider, a sweet drama with a similar female-empowerment arc and a setting in a traditional society with highly developed ideas about what a girl should and should not do.

But Caro is no action director, and those lavish sets, that wire work, those battle scenes on horseback and individual martial-arts face-offs all need someone who knows their action stuff.

Liu Yifei and Tzi Ma
Mulan and her father (Tzi Ma) face off

The ambition is lofty – a House of Flying Daggers or a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (apparently Ang Lee was approached) and the support stars are well chosen, though not that well used. Jason Scott Lee getting the best of it as the leader of invaders, Gong Li coming in second as the poisonous Xianniang, Donnie Yen and Jet Li bringing up the rear.

The potentially Disney-detonating frisson between pretty Mulan and handsome Honghui – he thinks she’s a he, remember – is examined in the super-tentative way you might examine radioactive material. As with the personal, so with the political: the references to the strategic importance of the Silk Road might be an analogue for modern-day China’s globally strategic One Belt One Road scheme. Or it might not.

This feeling of things having been picked up only to be put down again is largely the fault of a screenplay that’s been focus-grouped and run by marketing in case it will offend someone in China. The result is that at the level of the individual cultural artefact, this film looks like it doesn’t know what it’s about, beyond reviving the franchise.

But maybe, just possibly, that isn’t really its point. Perhaps, by sticking very close to the original tale, the purpose of this Mulan is to extend Disney copyright tentacles into the territory of the “uncopyrightable” folk tale (see, among others, the remarkably straight Cinderella remake directed by Kenneth Branagh).

Just a thought.

Buy Mulan or watch it on Amazon Prime Video

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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