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Review: Warrior spirit missing from live-action 'Mulan'

The remake of the 1998 animated tale doesn't come to life

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The live-action remake of "Mulan" is as two-dimensional as a cartoon. 

The flesh-and-blood version of the 1998 animated film is a paint-by-numbers tale of adversity, identity, honor and family. It's acceptable but hardly inspiring, classy but stiff, as the hollow-at-its-center tale lacks the soul needed to truly bring it to life.   

Yifei Liu in "Mulan."

Yifei Liu is the title character, who in order to save her ailing father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) disguises herself as a man and joins China's Imperial Army. There, she proves herself to be a true warrior, but is forced to keep her true self a secret because of tradition and prevailing gender politics.

Stories of women disguising themselves as men date back centuries, from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" to the '80s comedy "Just One of the Guys" and beyond. The formula tends to be similar across stories — there's usually a bathing scene centered around the threat of a reveal, and there is indeed one here — and the final unveiling causes an initial shock that forces the naysayers to look inside themselves and examine their own beliefs. It's a time-honored storytelling device. 

"Mulan" has a chance to set itself apart by steeping itself in Chinese lore, but the film's version of China doesn't dig any deeper than Epcot Center's. The costumes and the settings are on par for a big budget Disney production, but don't transport viewers to another world. It all renders a little flat.

Director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider" and the fantastic "McFarland, USA") relies heavily on CGI and wire effects that come across choppy rather than natural. When the characters in films such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "Hero" fly through the air, there's a visual poetry to the fluidity of their movements, and their soaring feels like a majestic reflection of the human spirit. That magic isn't present here, and the action scenes don't achieve lift-off.

As Xian Lang, a shape-shifting witch with the ability to transform herself into a bird, Gong Li has the film's most interesting role, and the only character with an interesting arc. Her shades of good and evil, and the kinship she feels with Mulan, show a depth that is otherwise missing from the proceedings. 

"Mulan" does come with a simple, empowering message for young girls. But it doesn't achieve the high water mark of Disney's live action "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Lion King" remakes, which brought fresh perspective to their cartoon counterparts. In this case, the animation felt more alive. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Mulan'

GRADE: C

Rated PG-13: for sequences of violence

Running time: 115 minutes

On Disney+ Premier Access