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‘Mulan’ features stunning visuals fit for the big screen, but its characters fall flat

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service
Yifei Liu stars in "Mulan,"  which will be available Friday on Disney+ for a premium fee.

It’s been a battle to the screen this year for legendary warrior Mulan, her live-action Disney debut that was planned for this spring thwarted by the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. But Mulan has been a fighter for hundreds of years, her story based on a 4th-century female Chinese warrior, as recounted in the ancient poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” and she wields her way to the small screen this weekend on Disney+ (for an additional rental fee).

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The 1998 Disney animated film “Mulan” is a beloved title among the Disney Renaissance animated features of the 1990s, and so a live-action (emphasis on the action) reboot was due, given Disney’s proclivity for remakes of the sort. This “Mulan” is helmed by Niki Caro, the New Zealand director known for the Oscar-nominated “Wave Rider.” And here, she has given “Mulan” a wuxia makeover.

It is refreshing to see one of these live-action adaptations given the epic martial arts treatment, and the vibrant colors and composition, courtesy of Aussie cinematographer Mandy Walker, give the film a visual dynamism that is truly special. Although it’s a treat to see “Mulan” at all, this is the one film you might really wish had been on the big screen.

Yifei Liu stars in "Mulan," which will be available as a premium offer on Disney+ on Friday.

Perhaps that’s because the visuals are the best thing about the film, the spectacle a dazzling distraction from some of the weaker elements of storytelling and performance. And although this wouldn’t have worked as a musical, in replacing the songs from the 1998 film with action scenes, this version of “Mulan” lacks an essential emotional component and impact.

The story is fairly simple. A young woman (Yifei Liu) disguises herself as a man to take the place of her older father (Tzi Ma) when each family must send a soldier to fight for the emperor, who is under attack by nefarious forces. Mulan, uninterested in homemaking or matchmaking, is already gifted in the mastery of her chi, or energy flow, and her destiny is to become a soldier.

This is the 11th movie about Mulan (the first one a silent film released in 1927), and writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek have embroidered upon the legend their own embellishments, including a shape-shifting witch played by a legend in her own right, Gong Li. This character serves as a foil to Mulan, an embodiment of feminine power without the devotion to honor and the military principles of loyalty, bravery and truth to which the young warrior subscribes.

Jason Scott Lee, left, and Gong Li star in "Mulan." The film is available Friday on Disney+ for a premium fee.

Although the battles are eye-popping, the character arcs feel rushed, painted with broad strokes, leaving scenes devoid of emotional and narrative weight. Liu, playing a character who has to conceal her true nature for the majority of the film, extends that a bit too far in her performance. She barely reveals any emotion at all, even in times of great terror, loss or triumph. It’s only with her sister (Xana Tang) and father that Mulan lets her guard down. And while those moments resonate, it only underlines how much that’s missing from the rest of the film. One has to admit that for all the wuxia in the world, nothing can adequately replace a soaring ballad like “Reflection” for the way it colors in character and motivation.

Although it’s hampered by its storytelling issues, Caro’s “Mulan” proves to be a worthy and welcome bit of cinematic spectacle at home. You just may want to cue up the 1998 soundtrack to go along with it.

‘MULAN’

2.5 stars

Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jet Li, Gong Li.

Directed by Niki Caro.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence.

Available Friday for rental on Disney+