Mulan

Mulan

The new “Mulan” remake, available on Disney+, manages to be both an enjoyable movie and a massive letdown. Sometimes Movies, like people, have baggage. These avoidable aspects don’t necessarily show up on the big screen, but they color how people see the movie: production issues, expectations, historical context. Disney’s remake of “Mulan,” unfortunately, has more than most.

The movie itself feels like an anticlimax: “Mulan” is merely a serviceable film that’s rather easy to forget. It does not live up to the expectations placed on it, nor does it make a compelling argument against its earliest critics. It’s a movie mostly noticeable for what isn’t there. If you can shut that out, what’s on-screen is often gorgeous to look at.

Unlike a lot of Disney’s live-action remakes, “Mulan” is not a shot-for-shot remake. It takes liberties, but they’re all relatively small, and the plot of the 2020 film is nearly identical to that of the 1998 original. With a plot so similar to the original, the new Mulan struggles to define itself beyond what it removes from the Mulan of the ‘90s. Some absences are not missed — like Eddie Murphy’s talking dragon Mushu — but others, like the musical numbers, leave an emotional void that the film doesn’t really try to fill. It makes Mulan a strangely passive character, which is reinforced by the movie’s biggest change: portraying Mulan as uniquely connected to her Chi.

According to the film, Mulan’s uncanny ability to tap into her Chi is what makes her a superhuman spear-kicking warrior essentially from birth, a genetic compulsion to hop on rooftops and play with swords from childhood. It is, frankly, a ridiculous addition. There is little Mulan does that feels like she decides for herself.

Despite feeling fundamentally hollow, “Mulan” is a pleasure to watch on a screen. It’s the kind of beautiful that makes you mourn for the loss of theaters in 2020. Fights are wonderfully composed and consistently staged in interesting places. Despite battles that mostly unfold in mountainous deserts, Mulan finds ways to spill color across the screen. In another diversion from the original, the film introduces magic, mostly in the form of the sorceress Xian Lang , a shapeshifter in the service of the Rouran invader Bori Khan whose power adds even more visual flair to a movie brimming with it.

Mulan is popcorn cinema without the popcorn. Choosing severity over fun, it prefers its characters to appear strong instead of real. While it does a lot of work to look like it comes from a place, it does little to feel like it does: there are few jokes, few memorable exchanges, and surprisingly little camaraderie for a movie featuring a bunch of soldiers. The result is something that plays like a very good band performing a forgettable cover, one that’s more about imitating a sound than giving it theirs. For a movie about a woman learning to own her identity, Mulan cannot seem to form one of its own.