Streaming on Disney+: Mulan (2020) - Reviewed

Whale Rider and North Country writer-director Niki Caro’s long awaited $200 million live-action Disney remake of the 1998 Disney animated feature Mulan has faced more uphill battles and engendered more controversies than any other film released this year.  A massive five-years-in-the-making project, the film began experiencing trouble initially with leading actress Yifei Liu’s comments on social media in support of the Hong Kong police protests, sparking an online boycott of the film before the film even hit the screens. 
Compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering theatrical releases, Disney made the divisive decision to release the film exclusively on Disney+ followed by an additional $30 price tag on top of the subscription costs.  Upon release the film generated even more controversy when it was discovered in addition to a Chinese story being largely written by white people, portions of the film were shot in Xinjiang, a site rife with internment camps with special thanks given to government officials allowing the filmmakers to shoot there.  After the Chinese government banned any and all media coverage for the film as a result, the English-language film bombed in the very country it was intended for.

Having finally seen the film itself, whatever your personal stance is on the film’s troubled production and release history, it can safely be said none of the controversies are anywhere to be seen in the film itself.  Differing from the various prior live-action Disney remakes which went for a shot-by-shot recreation of their animated features in films like Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, Caro has more or less fashioned what can be characterized as a Disney-fied Zhang Yimou film with all of the lush colors, set pieces and action sequences fans have come to expect from the Hong Kong director. 
While many have expressed dismay over the jettisoning of characters such as Eddie Murphy’s dragon Mushu and Mulan’s love interest Li Shang, the cast included but not limited to such Chinese film industry giants as Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Gong Li more than make up for the characters’ absences.  Visually the film looks splendid thanks to Lantana and Hidden Figures cinematographer Mandy Walker whose bright colorful reds shine like freshly coated paint on the sets.  The film also employs the musical talents of The Martian composer Harry Gregson-Williams who offers up his own interpretation of the Hong Kong musical sound though many will argue it doesn’t come near the grandeur of Jerry Goldsmith’s eclectic score for the 1998 film.
Whatever you may or may not bring to this new Mulan film, whether it be disdain for the ongoing live action remakes of Disney’s entire back catalog of animated features or complaints about the film’s connections to various ongoing political controversies, the film itself is perfectly harmless and at times beautiful to look at.  There’s not a whole lot in the way of emotional depth to this opulent spectacle but it will give your 4K televisions prime demo material to show off to friends and family.    

In the end yours truly still prefers Niki Caro’s Whale Rider which tackled many of the same themes presented in her Mulan adaptation with greater clarity and complexity.  Though this might not be worth the $30+ price tag for some while others will likely wait until December when the film goes on the regular Disney+ subscription service, Mulan at the end of a long hard battle to the screen will provide some colorful and at times spectacularly visual entertainment value to dedicated Disney fans.

--Andrew Kotwicki