Mulan review: why on earth didn't Disney put this on the big screen?

Glossy pastiche: Disney's new Mulan
Glossy pastiche: Disney's new Mulan
  • Dir: Niki Caro; Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, Xana Tang. 12A cert, 115 min

The fate of Disney’s Mulan is inextricably bound up in the fate of Disney’s moolah. In the early days of the pandemic, when most studio films were scattering from the schedules, two notably held firm. One was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet: the other was the latest animation-to-live-action remake from the mightiest studio of them all. This flesh and blood version of Mulan was meant to open in the UK one week into lockdown, but was swiftly redeployed to the end of summer – when, in the words of Disney’s own co-chairmen, it would arrive “on the world stage and the big screen for audiences around the globe to enjoy together,” and also help ease the theatrical circuit out of lockdown.

Instead, to the horror of the owners of those big screens, less than a month before its planned release the film was diverted to the Disney+ streaming platform, whose 60 million subscribers around the world can now unlock it at home for a £19.99 ‘premier access’ fee. With Tenet currently entering its second week in cinemas, we are witnessing an impromptu A/B test in how to launch a blockbuster post-Covid, and you can bet the entire industry will be glued to the results.

Yet if the stubbornly original and complex Tenet might not be the most obvious title to revive the multiplexes, Mulan is an even odder standard-bearer for streaming: there isn’t a scene, or perhaps even shot, in Niki Caro’s film which doesn’t deserve to be seen at a considerably larger than living room scale. When the camera isn’t swooshing over soldiers on horseback thundering across the plains, it’s balletically circling sword fights, sometimes cocking thrillingly to one side as the duel continues at 90 degrees to gravity, and common sense.

You sense the phrase “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for kids” must have been uttered at some point early in production, while Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou’s blazingly coloured historical epics, were also surely extensively pinned to the mood board. Mulan often feels less like a conventional Disney film than a glossy pastiche of wuxia – the martial arts genre whose heroes run up and down walls, bound across moonlit rooftops, and bounce on the blades of one another’s swords.

Some of the more overtly fantastical elements from its 1998 animated forerunner have been jettisoned: bye bye to Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking dragon. But others have been added, including Gong Li’s fearsome sorceress, who can transform herself into a swarming colony of bats, and does a neat job of replicating the flying-sleeve combat manoeuvres from Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey. The film’s biggest visual effects coup is another new addition: a dazzlingly animated phoenix that looks like a living kite, with streaming tail feathers that twist and ripple in the wind.

Despite such cosmetic changes, the plot retains its recognisable shape. When war comes to her province, the boisterous and free-spirited Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) disguises herself as a young man in order to enlist in the Imperial Chinese army, and thereby take the place of her elderly father Zhou (Tzi Ma) in the coming battle against the proto-Mongolian hordes. Most of the pivotal moments have been dutifully restaged, from the avalanche that reveals Mulan’s true sex to her cohort to the climactic battle at the Imperial City. Yet in each of them, you notice the film carrying itself a little differently than it used to: the freethinking girl-power vigour of the 1998 Mulan has been muted in favour of a more stoic resolve to do one’s patriotic duty, whatever the personal cost.

“Fight for the kingdom and the people!” the Emperor (Jet Li) exhorts Mulan in her final battle against Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the invaders’ swarthy chieftain: it’s a line you can imagine going down well with the China Film Administration’s censors, who determine which Hollywood productions are allowed to open in Chinese cinemas. (In China, where Disney+ has yet to launch, Mulan is still on course for a traditional release next week.)

The problem with reducing Mulan to a nationalistic cipher is that her personal journey no longer feels personal – a rivalry-slash-romance with Yoson An’s Honghui is nicely played, but feels irrelevant as the bigger picture sweeps and dazzles. Perhaps more than any other Disney live-action remake to date, Mulan feels like a blockbuster version of great mime – it’s performed with such consummate precision and showmanship that at times you would swear you were watching something with a heart.

Mulan is on Disney+ from Friday 4 September