Disney's live-action 'Mulan' delivers big-screen spectacle at home

Brad Keefe

Another week, another new twist in how Hollywood is handling its scheduled 2020 releases. It’s getting hard to keep up.

“Mulan,” Disney’s latest live-action adaptation from its animated library, is forgoing theaters for a pay release today on Disney+. Mind you, “Mulan” is not part of the regular slate of Disney+ films. Subscribers will have to pay $29.99 to access the movie, and can watch it as many times as they want until Nov. 2.

Much like the release of “Hamilton,” this is another effort to gain Disney+ subscribers, as “Mulan” is not available on other streaming VOD services until later this year. It also will be added to the regular Disney+ slate in December, minus the additional fee.

So is it worth it? For families and anyone stuck at home in need of a mix of nostalgia and sweeping action, yes.

Disney’s continuous raiding of its animated classics has been a mixed bag. Many decry messing with the beloved animated films, and few would say any of these fully live up to the originals. But they have all been box office gold, so expect them to keep coming.

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Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) has made one of the boldest decisions of one of these adaptations yet in the choice to skip the songs.

Yep, that’s right. There's no singing.

So the familiar story of Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), the daughter of a great warrior who pretends to be a man in order to serve in the Emperor’s army, unfolds in a way that’s both familiar and new. Minus songs, Mulan’s tale is told through dialogue (occasionally lifted from song lyrics) and some of the most sweeping action you’ve ever seen in a Disney film.

“Mulan” is visually gorgeous with massive battle sequences and moments that rival most any martial arts epic. In fact, they coaxed two martial arts movie legends to join the cast in Jet Li and Donnie Yen. And without musical interludes, the whole affair feels more grown-up, as evidenced by a PG-13 rating for battle sequences (although it’s a mild PG-13 and bloodless).

While the story is not as emotionally engaging as the animated original, the massive budget for this movie seems well-spent.

Therein lies the rub: This is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Theater exhibitors feel the same way, decrying Disney for not doing a simultaneous theatrical release, even as I’m finding it hard to recommend people rush to theaters for anything that would “fill” a house, even at reduced capacity.

It’s also noteworthy that there is a movement in some Asian companies to boycott “Mulan” in protest of China’s anti-democratic efforts, particularly against Hong Kong.

All that said (and with a fairly low bar to hurdle), “Mulan” is one of the best Disney animated adaptations to date, and one of the few that makes the case for reimagining them in the first place.

I’d assume much of the target audience for this movie already subscribes to Disney+, and a family would certainly get their money’s worth with the ability to rewatch it for several months.

But these remain strange times for the movie experience, and this one will make you miss the big screen.