In 1998, Walt Disney Feature Animation released its 36th film, its first and only retelling of a Chinese legend: Mulan, the story of a daughter who dons her father’s armor and pretends to be his son to fight the invading Huns. As companions, Mulan gets some assistance from her faithful steed, Khan, a lucky cricket named Cri-Kee, and an ancestral dragon, Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy.
Maybe Murphy wasn’t the most culturally sensitive casting for the movie — Disney’s writing and animation staff created the wisecracking dragon, a character closer to The Lion King’s Timon and Aladdin’s Genie than the story of Hua Mulan — but it works, and Murphy’s performance is one of the movie’s highlights. If you’re looking for something out-of-place in Mulan, then Harvey Fierstein’s performance of Yao (Brooklynese by way of a belt sander) ought to do the trick.
You’ll find no talking dragon in Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan — directed by Niki Caro and starring Yifei Liu as the infantry soldier in disguise. There’s no Harvey Firestein either, but Cri-Kee’s back, he’s just been recast as a lucky warrior named Cricket (Jun Yu). Gone, too, are the songs: No Christina Aguilera singing about reflections, and no Donny Osmond promising to make a man out of you — he’s been replaced by Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, who is too old to be Mulan’s love interest, and out goes the romance subplot. The filmmakers don’t seem to know what to do with Yen. Nor do they know what to do with Jet Li as the Emperor, a grand warrior who hasn’t lost his edge. It seems preposterous that anyone as lame as Böri Kahn (Jason Scott Lee) could hold an ass-kicking Jet Li hostage.
That’s more or less what this Mulan is: A lot of humorless action with no songs that doesn’t quite add up. And if you thought dropping the music would save some run time, you’d be wrong. While the animated movie came in at 89 minutes, this Mulan tacks on another 20, adds a subplot of Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shape-shifting witch who aligns herself with Böri Kahn while simultaneously tempting Mulan — an echo of Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora and Maleficent’s relationship that is cast off as soon as it’s introduced.
Splitting the villain in two complicates matters further as both need motives: She is tired of living as a powerful outcast; he seeks revenge for his father’s death. Neither improves upon Shan Yu’s desire to take the Emperor’s throne in the 1998 version: “By building his wall, he challenged my power.” Simple, clean, elegant. A story in eight words.
There’s nothing in this Mulan with that economy. The action is a hybrid of wirework and digital effects — there’s too much of both, not enough of either — and the images are pretty without being distinct. Liu is believable as warrior Mulan but is given little when it’s time for dramatics. A fate that falls many here. Disney loses a lot in translating its animated classics into live-action spectacles. Oh, for want of a talking dragon and a song now and then.
ON THE BILL: Mulan will available on Disney+ Premier Access starting Sept. 4.