After months of disruptions that continue to impact film distribution, we’ve now reached a point in the year when studios are starting to take chances with their blockbusters – high-cost productions they rely on for big financial returns. Many remain delayed indefinitely, and some, like Tenet, are forging ahead with a theatrical release, but Disney went in a different direction with its anticipated remake of Mulan. Originally scheduled to release in late March, Mulan was just made available on the Disney+ streaming service for $29.99— a price tag that looks appealing when compared to a family’s worth of theater tickets, but must be paid on top of the cost of a Disney+ subscription. My usual responsibility of assessing whether a film is worth your investment must then answer two questions: Is Mulan worth subscribing to Disney+ for? And for those who already have the service, is it worth paying the extra premium?
The first thing to know when weighing those questions is that this Mulan, the vision of New Zealand director Niki Caro, is not just a live action reshoot of the 1998 animation. Drawing from other adaptations of the classic Chinese legend, which sees Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) join the army disguised as a man to save her ailing father (Tzi Ma) from conscription, Caro leaves singing, whimsy, and Mushu behind to tell the story as a fantasy epic. Mulan is naturally gifted at controlling her chi, the energy that allows warriors to do the impossible, but her father warns her to suppress this ability and fulfill the role society expects of her. However, her already formidable enemy is being aided by the shapeshifting witch Xian Lang (Gong Li), and Mulan’s learning to harness her talent becomes the country’s only hope for salvation.
While I expect the shock will be too much for many fans of the ’98 adaptation, I celebrate this difference in creative direction— many of Disney’s recent live action remakes suffer from redoing what the animated originals had already done better, and Caro at least avoids that trap. Instead, Mulan creates a new problem for itself by taking a wuxia martial arts film and filtering it through a Disney sensibility, creating two points of comparison it doesn’t really measure up to. The dialogue, shaky at best, is unsuccessful at injecting the humor and heart desired by Disney’s audience, while fans of martial arts films will notice that the action sequences seem in some way restrained by the film’s tone (the casting of genre legends Donnie Yen and Jet Li only highlights this). Firmly in the middle-ground between the expectations of those fanbases, it might struggle to find an audience.
That said, Mulan works hard to overcome its script problems with spectacle, and (in my eyes) just succeeds. With elaborate sets, stunning vistas, and a vibrant sense of color, the visuals of Caro’s film are often entrancing, and her direction of the fight scenes gives them an urgency that keeps her viewers engaged. While the emotional stakes are not particularly high, it remains thrilling to watch Mulan defeat her foes, suggesting that we’re invested enough in her to care about her success, whether because of character development or the thematic focus on women’s empowerment. Viewers open to the experience (and who watch it in a group) will have enough fun with this Mulan to make it worth its price tag, but if having access to the animated Mulan didn’t convince you to get Disney+, this new take definitely won’t.