If any movie has had a more complex and rambling release timeline than Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, it would be Disney’s latest live-action remake, Mulan. After its initial Hollywood premiere on March 9, the film was slated for a wide theatrical release on March 27. But those plans were scrubbed after commercial cinemas around the world were forced to close because of the coronavirus. For months, Disney stood firm that Mulan would debut theatrically, and the release date continued to move back a week at a time in lockstep with Tenet, with many looking to these two tentpole films as the official relaunch of commercial cinema.
After months of “will it/won’t it?” release-date shuffling, Warner decided to seek an international release of Tenet before opening here in the States. Disney, however, made the radical decision to forego a commercial release of Mulan in the U.S.
entirely, instead trying a new strategy with its Disney+ streaming service, offering Mulan to all subscribers for a one-time $29.99 fee for “Premier Access.”
Shortly before Mulan’s September 4 release to Disney+, Disney clarified that the Premier Access offer would only be available until November 2, 2020. “Once you have Premier Access to Mulan, you can watch as many times as you want on any platform where Disney+ is available. Your access to Mulan will continue as long as you are an active Disney+ subscriber. Mulan will be available to all Disney+ subscribers on December 4, 2020 for no additional cost.”
So, with a major title costing an estimated $200 million to produce, and initially expected to bring in close to a billion worldwide, Disney is not only gambling heavily on Premium Access, but also seemingly stacking the deck against itself by telling subscribers that if they jut hold off a few months, they can get it for free.
MULAN AT A GLANCE
Another in Disney’s series of live-action remakes of animated titles, this straight-to-Disney+ effort sheds the musical numbers and most of the humor to tell the tale of Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to become a soldier.
Streamed in 4K, the film looks gorgeous—especially when seen on a flagship video display—taking full advantage of HDR’s wider color gamut.
The Dolby Atmos mix is disappointing, but its restraint might be due in part to being streamed over AppleTV.
My family was planning on seeing Mulan in the theater, so I gladly ponied up the $29.99. (Still cheaper than buying three tickets, and with the added benefit of watching in my own home theater as many times as I want!) Disney sent subscribers an email with instructions for unlocking Premier Access, and a link took me to a page where I could enter payment details. Once submitted, a gold Premier Access banner appears by Mulan along with, “You have Premier Access to this movie.”
Unlike previous Disney live-action remakes—Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin—Mulan doesn’t strictly adhere to the original animated material, and where the 1998 animated film was G-rated with a lot of musical numbers, this remake is a decidedly more adult PG-13 film. Also, there’s no singing or any musical numbers. There are some definite nods to the big
musical numbers “Honor to Us All” and “Reflection,” with those instrumental themes clearly playing, and some of the lines from “A Girl Worth Fighting For” are used as lines of dialogue.
Also gone are the bickering ancestors and Mushu, the protector ancestral dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, which is replaced by a CGI Phoenix, the family’s ancestral guardian, that appears when Mulan needs strength or guidance. Also, for historical accuracy, the Huns have been replaced by the Rouran army.
The film opens with Mulan as a young girl performing fighting moves with a staff in an open field, and we are told “Chi is the boundless energy of life itself speaking through her every motion.” But only a son can wield chi, and a daughter that doesn’t hide her chi risks shame, dishonor, and exile. We’re also informed “chi is for warriors, not daughters.”
Chi plays a prominent role in the film, and feels a lot like another mystical power from the Disney-owned universe, The Force. In fact, we’re told, “Chi obeys the universe and all living things; we are all born with it but only the most true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.” I was actually waiting to hear that chi surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together. In another strong echo of the Star Wars universe, another powerful chi-wielder tells Mulan to join them and they will take their place together. Sound familiar? Of course, instead of a lightsaber, Mulan wields her father’s sword.
Otherwise, the film hits all the major beats and plot points from the original, removing much of the humor and telling a serious tale of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the Emperor’s army to take her old and injured father’s place after an edict that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA) apparently auditioned over 1,000 actresses before selecting Yifei Lui to play Mulan, and Lui does a great job as both delicate Hua Mulan and soldier Hua Jun, handling most of her own stunts. Also on hand are two Chinese film legends, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung and Jet Li as the Emperor, as well as Jason Scott Lee playing Rouran leader, Bori Khan.
There is plenty of fighting throughout, and even though Mulan has a PG-13 rating, the killing is completely bloodless and gore-free. There were only a few scenes that were too intense for my 4 year old. Soldiers hit by arrows slump over, and we see empty helmets to represent the hundreds of slaughtered, or just see bodies lying still. While much of the fighting is grounded in real-world physics, there is the occasional use of the “Wuxia” flying/leaping/gravity-defying fighting style popularized in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially after Mulan fully embraces—and unleashes—the true potential of her chi.
Besides the musical nods, there is a nice cameo by Ming-Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the animated title, and Christina Aguilera—who sang “Reflection” as her debut single over the animated end-credits—returns with a new end-credits song, “Loyal Brave True.”
Mulan runs just shy of two hours and is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which benefits the wide vistas and grand scale of many shots, especially the wide-open countryside.
Shot in ArriRaw at 4.5 and 5.1K resolution, Mulan is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the film looks gorgeous, especially when viewed on a high-end Dolby Vision-capable display. The resolution makes it easy to appreciate the detail of the costuming, seeing the work of the armor, the stitching, threads, and fabric of the uniforms, or the detail of the sets and backgrounds. Closeups reveal pore-level detail and razor-sharp focus of the actors’ faces, and in one scene you can clearly see single beads of water dripping down a few strands of Mulan’s hair. Long shots also have tons of detail, letting you appreciate the vast scenic spaces, buildings, and gathered armies, with nice, sharp edges.
Mulan also benefits from HDR’s wider color gamut, with the colors of the outfits warn by occupants in Mulan’s village being vibrant and saturated. Reds are especially deep, as are the gleaming golds of the Emperor’s throne room. You also get beautifully lit faces in some interiors where characters talk by lantern light, their faces bathed in a rich warm glow with deep natural shadows, or the bright gleaming sunlit skies in exteriors, or the burning of fires and torches.
In total, Mulan looks fantastic, and should definitely be appreciated on a flagship video display.
Sonically, however, I found the Dolby Atmos mix to be really reserved and frankly a bit disappointing. Of course, this could be less an issue with the mix itself and more to do with AppleTV’s audio output, something I found disappointing when watching Taylor Swift’s Reunion concert on Netflix, or perhaps the difference between the lossy Dolby Digital+ used by streaming services and the TrueHD audio found on physical 4K discs and offered by Kaleidescape.
There were many cases when the height channels could have been used more aggressively to good effect, such as arrows raining overhead, swords slashing, birds flying overhead, people leaping, rain falling, etc. There were a couple of scenes where the height speakers are put to good use, such as Mulan hearing the voices of her ancestors or people are speaking off-camera from overhead.
While the surround channels are used for the sounds of swishing arrows, fighting, and atmospheric sounds like wind and echoes and to expand the musical score, I found the mix to be mainly focused across the front three speakers. In a way, it almost feels like Disney knew this was going to be primarily viewed at home, and so the mix choices were optimized for TV speakers and basic soundbar setups.
While not possessing a bass-heavy mix, your subwoofer definitely comes into play in key moments, such as the galloping horse army, a cascading avalanche, and the crashing of massive boulders launched by the Rouran army’s trebuchet.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy this retelling of Mulan might depend on how much you loved the original animated title. While it is the same story, it is told in a completely different manner, and if you are expecting another live-action rehash, you may be disappointed. Taken on its own merit, however, Mulan is a well-told, updated, and compelling story that features a solid cast, with massive scale, along with some terrific cinematography that all make for a great night at the movies.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.