As a movie, at least, there is nothing particularly wrong with Mulan, Disney’s latest and most explicit play for Chinese moviegoers, but there is nothing particularly right about it either. It’s skillfully crafted, as high-gloss modern blockbusters tend to be, and it moves efficiently through an entirely predictable set of narrative beats. But there are no surprises, no moments of real awe or wonder, no scenes or ideas that stand out; even the genuinely extravagant production work seems designed less to wow and more to hit a particular focus-grouped spec. The movie’s most notable trait is its bland consistency. It is lavishly perfunctory, spectacularly just fine. Mulan takes “pretty good” to a whole new level.
That’s par for the course for Disney, which has recently specialized in paint-by-numbers luxury epics constructed out of recognizable intellectual property, whether in the form of purchased brands like Marvel or Star Wars or in live-action remakes of animated classics from the studio’s vault. Like recent adaptations of The Jungle Book, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, Mulan falls into the last category: It’s based on the studio’s 1998 animated hit, which was itself a retelling of a centuries-old Chinese legend about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place as a warrior.
But this version has not only been remade in the image of its predecessor; it has been refashioned in the image of Disney’s other contemporary properties, most notably the recent entries in the Star Wars franchise. While the animated original was a G-rated family film with a wisecracking dragon sidekick played by Eddie Murphy, the live-action reboot is a dutiful PG-13 action spectacle built around a powerful female hero.
Mulan isn’t the disaster that Disney’s most recent Star Wars entry, The Rise of Skywalker, turned out to be. In both story and character terms, it’s a more polished final product, which is to say that it basically makes sense and does not make a mockery of its source material.
But it clearly draws from the same well as the J.J. Abrams–era Star Wars films. There are no lightsabers to be found, but there’s a family sword, an imperial power struggle, a band of raiders led by a man in black, and a mystical energy source that gives the movie’s titular heroine great power and special aptitude as a warrior. Disney was apparently hoping that a box-office force would once again awaken.
Alas, just weeks before Mulan was set to be released, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theaters in the United States, putting the film’s theatrical release on hold. Instead, nearly six months later, it has been released to much of the world as a premium add-on to its parent company’s streaming service, Disney+.
For about $30, you can finally have the theatrical experience at home. The problem is that it is not the theatrical experience. Even with a big-screen television and surround sound, you’re still watching in your living room, with your dog snoring nearby and the delivery guy ringing your doorbell. The experience is less summer blockbuster and more Blockbuster Video.
Mulan also shares with the Abrams-verse a timid and studied thematic emptiness, an avoidance of any specific ideas or questions that might upset anyone, anywhere, at all. Mulan fights for honor, for family, for finding herself and owning her power, which is to say she fights for vague and inoffensive banalities that could not possibly stir up any political or cultural controversy. The movie reads as an extended attempt to dodge saying anything about anything in any way, except that nice things are nice and good things are good. Who could argue with that?
The real world, however, did not cooperate with Disney’s plan to avoid ruffling feathers: Parts of the movie were shot near China’s Uighur concentration camps, and the credits thank Chinese authorities who help administer those brutal facilities, where as many as three million people are reportedly held against their will in buildings ringed with razor wire, patrolled by guards armed with cattle prods.
The expansion of global trade has greatly benefited both American and Chinese citizens, and large corporations can sometimes serve as cultural ambassadors, even in countries with repressive governments. But Disney increasingly relies on the box office power of Chinese audiences. Its cooperation with China’s Communist Party regime, which restricts the number of foreign films that can be shown each year and implicitly censors American studio content, is one reason for the careful blandness that permeates so many Disney products.
What this means, however, is that a film like Mulan is inherently tied up in the ugliness of governments and politics—indeed, in some of the ugliest political repression on the planet. Judged strictly as a film, Mulan is merely an extravagant mediocrity. But as a cultural proposition, it embodies something far, far darker.