'Mulan' is cinematic eye candy that makes up for a weak script, critics say

Key Points
  • "Mulan" arrives on Disney+ on Sept. 4 for $30.
  • It currently holds a 82% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 152 reviews.
  • Critics say the film straddles the line between being a kids film and dramatic war epic, unwilling to choose a side.

In this article

Liu Yifei stars in Disney's "Mulan."

There's a reason that blockbuster tentpoles are meant to be seen in theaters. Unfortunately, for audiences in the U.S., the ongoing coronavirus pandemic forced Disney to postpone its theatrical release of "Mulan" and, ultimately, give it a home on Disney+.

The film, which seeks to merge the 6th century "Ballad of Mulan" with the beloved animated feature "Mulan" from the late '90s, was meant to hit theaters in March. Critics, who speak highly of the visually stunning film, were quick to note that "Mulan" would have been eye candy for viewers on a big screen. Countries without Disney+ will get the chance to see the film in theaters.

Still, the sweeping landscapes, elegant action sequences and stunning costuming of the film is not entirely lost on the small screen.

"Mulan" diverges from its animated counterpart, ditching the fast-talking dragon Mushu and lucky cricket sidekicks in favor of a more solemn and serious tone. Gone, too, is the catchy music that made the 1998 film resonate with kids and adults alike. 

What's left is a PG-13 film that straddles the line between being a kids film and dramatic war epic, unwilling to choose a side.

"'Mulan' doesn't ever let you forget that it is in conversation with the animated film, devoted to hitting the familiar beats of its predecessor instead of telling its own story," Associated Press writer Lindsey Bahr wrote in her review of the film. "Every time you hear the notes from 'Reflection,' which is only sung in the credits, you are torn out of Caro's sumptuous spectacle and once again thinking about the 1998 version and its songs."

Despite this, "Mulan" has been well-received by critics. It currently holds a 82% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 152 reviews.

Here's a rundown of what critics said about "Mulan" as it heads to Disney+ this weekend:

Lindsey Bahr, the Associated Press

Filmed in China and New Zealand, "Mulan" is "stunning to look at from beginning to end," Bahr said.

"The crisp landscapes (shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker), the brightly colored and divinely intricate costumes (from Bina Daigeler), the elaborate fight sequences and the actors faces — especially Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan — are so beautiful that it will take your breath away," she said.

That's the consensus of "Mulan." It's visually stunning from its rich colors and landscapes to its costumes and choreography.

Critics were recently given a chance to rescreen the film digitally. Many concluded that while it was a shame the film didn't get a chance to run in theaters in the U.S., its cinematography and wuxia-inspired action sequences could be appreciated from a couch. Although, it's not quite the same.

"Make no mistake, director Niki Caro's 'Mulan' is without a doubt one of the best of the remakes," Bahr said.

Read the full review from the Associated Press.

Liu Yifei stars in Disney's "Mulan."

Angie Han, Mashable

For some, the visual marvels achieved by Caro are enough to mask a script that often puts plot above character development. 

"Indeed, 'Mulan' is so gorgeous that it's a shame the pandemic has sent it straight to Disney+," Angie Han, a writer for Mashable, said in her review. "It feels like a film designed for the grandeur of a proper cinema, and having first seen it at the Dolby Theatre back in March, I can confirm it works better when it's bigger."

And it's not just the epic scenery that played better on the big screen for Han. Mulan's sense of humor, her affection toward her father and her romantic tension with a soldier played by Yoson An didn't translate as well on a laptop screen or TV.

"Liu's Mulan is as loyal and brave and true a Disney hero as one could possibly hope for, but that's all she is; the joy and yearning and playfulness of her predecessor are sorely missed," Han wrote. "This is a Mulan to admire as a role model, not one to recognize and relate to as a flawed fellow human, or simply enjoy as someone entertaining and interesting to be around."

Han notes that the movie never delves into what honor means to Mulan personally or if she has any inner conflict about her duty to her family or the possibility that she could be exiled or executed for her actions.

"The new Mulan is enough of a rebel to reject a life of compliance and submission, enough of a thinker to prove herself a brilliant military strategist, enough of a fighter to stand for what she believes in even at great cost to herself — but not, as far as we can see, someone capable of seeing a bigger picture that involves questioning the status quo or envisioning a new way forward," she wrote.

Read the full review from Mashable.

Justin Chang, NPR

The new adaption of "Mulan" clearly wanted to be different from its animated predecessor, opting for a more serious tone and a lack of comic relief animal characters. Still, the film didn't quite embrace the gritty, war film genre.

"Despite its PG-13 rating, a rarity for a Disney release, 'Mulan' feels like a watered-down version of a potentially captivating story," Justin Chang, a writer for NPR, said in his review of the film.

Additionally, Chang said he was "disappointed" by how the script handles cultural elements like chi and honor "as if they were difficult foreign concepts that needed to be repeatedly explained to the viewer."

He noted that he was not surprised to hear Chinese characters speaking in stilted English, as it has become a standard practice for Hollywood films set in Asian countries.

"Spinning a Chinese legend into family-friendly entertainment with worldwide appeal is admittedly a tricky business these days, especially when a story about the distant past collides with present-day politics," he said.

Notably, "Mulan" has generated controversy over its lead actress, Liu, who recently expressed support for police crackdowns in Hong Kong, spurring talks of boycotts on social media.

Read the full review from NPR.

Liu Yifei stars in Disney's "Mulan."

Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post

"It's not just a reflection. Thank God," Johnny Oleksinski, writer for the New York Post, opens his review to "Mulan."

Oleksinksi has been critical of Disney's previous live-action remakes, calling "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" "lifeless replicas." 

"'Mulan,' however, while not totally original, transitions to live action with real guts and reinvention," he said. "Yes, I missed the 1998 animated film's catchy music and talking animals — Eddie Murphy as a joking dragon called Mushu might be tough to swing in 2020 — but I was swept away by the breathtaking Chinese backdrops and high-stakes battles."

He praised Liu as Mulan, although questioned if the production did enough to help the character pass as a man.

"You don't quite buy that a bunch of muddy dudes in 100 AD would mistake Mulan for one of their bros," he writes.

Oleksinski noted that the Disney+ release of "Mulan" is a big test for Disney's business, but that many people will find the price ultimately worth it.

"What each person is willing to pay to watch a movie is up to them, but I'm sure 'Mulan' will make a fan out of you," he said.

Read the full review from The New York Post.

Disclosure: Comcast, the parent company of CNBC, owns Rotten Tomatoes.