I have one thing about Disney's new live-action Mulan that makes me extremely happy: it's not a mindless shot-for-shot remake of the 1998 animated film, and in this respect is considerably less irksome than the 2017 Beauty and the Beast and the 2019 Aladdin and The Lion King, the other remakes of films from the studio's 1990s renaissance. It's not a top-to-bottom re-imagining of the material - after the first ten minutes, the plot beats between the two films are essentially identical, and there are even several lines of dialogue repeated intact (including labored, cutesy cameos for the song lyrics) - but it changes the tone from the ground up, jettisoning the four songs that loom so large in the original film's reputation and scrapping all traces of the wacky sidekick character. It moves from adventure epic to martial arts action movie, and it gives the titular protagonist a completely new arc to work through. A remake it is, but not a slavish one, nor one that has been pinioned by the need to laboriously press nostalgic triggers, and this is, isn't it, the exact thing we've been begging Disney for ever since they started down the dark path of remaking their '90s musicals. So since it appears that Disney is, in fact, listening to criticism of its products, and making changes based on that criticism, I have a new idea for them to try: do the same thing again, and next time also make a film that's not terrible.

For Mulan, 2020 Edition, is quite bad: not all the way at the bottom rung of these live-action remakes, but that bottom rung is located several feet deep in a pool of liquefied pig shit, so you have to climb a bit before you're breathing fresh air. There are things about it that are actually good and pleasurable to watch. But there's also quite a lot that's boneheaded, lifeless, and flagrantly Orientalist; considering that the film was transparently made as a bid to win favor in the ever-more-lucrative Chinese marketplace, it's astonishing how much the treats China as a magical fairytale land, and how aggressively it lashes the story of Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) to Anglo-American storytelling norms. Rather than a nobody who disguises herself as a man to keep her father (Tzi Ma) from having to fight in the wars, Mulan is now a proper Chosen One, born with an innate ability to control qi, which this film seems to suppose is some kind of esoteric magical substance, rather than its traditional conception as the energy that flows through literally everything and which literally anybody can manipulate. This inborn qi power makes her an uncommonly perfect martial artist, though given that she is a girl, this freaks out everybody in the town where the Hua family lives, and so she has learned to conceal it, not feel it.

She will, soon enough, have an opportunity to let it go: the aforementioned disguise-myself-as-a-man-and-go-to-war trick, which this film treats with the grace of dumping out a sack of potatoes. The transformation scene in the 1998 Mulan - "Sequence 6", or "Mulan's Decision", or just the part where she cuts off her hair - is the emotional and aesthetic lynchpin of the entire film a breathtaking bit of wordless storytelling in which strikingly austere, almost abstract images and the final masterpiece-level musical cue of Jerry Goldsmith's career combine to create a stormy moment of pensive drama. In this Mulan, that sequence is plowed through at top speed and chopped together with no interest in rhythm at all, while being placidly decorated by Harry Gregson-Williams's indistinct score (which sounds like it came from a drawer at Remote Control Productions labeled Romantic Historical Adventure #7). This is also maybe enough to make it the lynchpin of the film's overall aesthetic; if there's one thing that leaps out about Mulan's style, it's that it has some hellishly bad cutting by editor David Coulson, particularly (but certainly not only!) in its action scenes.

To be fair, Mulan is far from the most aesthetically bankrupt Disney movie of the last few years. It's not what I hoped for many long months ago, when it was still going to open in theaters: it's not extremely well-shot, though there are a number of good shots within it. Mandy Walker is a good cinematographer, though, and when she can focus in on capturing the landscape under natural lighting, there are some very lovely results - the opening scene, in particular (silhouettes in tall grass) is surely the loveliest moment in a Disney remake outside of the 2016 Pete's Dragon. The costumes, by Bina Daigeler, end up being a bit garish-looking after a whole feature of them, and they definitely skew towards "Theme Park China" rather than a living version of historical China, but they're amply counterbalanced by the exceptionally good sets, which find production designer Grant Major creating several vivid interior spaces that have just exactly the right sense of pageantry to sell this as a fable, without tipping into cartoon junk, like the costumes kind of do.

So it is, on the whole, fairly nice to look at - much nicer than any of these films have looked for quite a while. But I have frontloaded that part of the story for a reason, which is that the writing is complete crap. The film has a massive problem creating characters with any specificity, not even Gong Li's stillborn performance as a shapeshifting witch and the movie's sort-of main villain; if they emerge with any kind of beating human heart, that's pretty much 100% on the actors, and only Ma and Rosalind Chao (playing Mulan's mother) actually get to that point. Given that both of those actors disappear from the film after Mulan leaves her parents in the first act, this means that basically the actual meat of the film is populated by indistinct nobodies (or indistinct somebodies: the legend Jet Li is practically asleep on set as the Emperor of China), led by the bland Mulan herself. I know little about Liu (but I have fun fact: she was in contention to play Mulan in the last Chinese film based on the legend, from 2009), and it's possible she's a great actor working in her native language, but she's completely inert in this film, emptily mouthing the film's generic platitudes about identity and honesty and duty.

She's not at all helped by the pack of writers, or by director Niki Caro, none of whom seem to have fully decided what they want Mulan to be about, and by extension, who Mulan herself is or what she feels. There's a bit of all-American "own your identity" cheerleading, but this runs into the film's rather naked desire to function as a Westernised version of propaganda for the Chinese  government, and that would alone be enough to make the film a muddle; this is compounded by being just not very well-written with stiff, arch dialogue that feels very stately and old-fashioned in a way that strangles the characters beneath the heaviness of self-conscious period filmmaking. Whenever it breaks away from the 1998 film (such as the introduction of that witch, and the changed dynamic for the impossibly vague bad guys), Mulan instantly loses the thread of its storytelling, leading to shapeless, pointless scenes throughout, in which the plot advances more because the minutes are clicking by than because choices are being made by characters.

I have saved the worst for last. I presume in an attempt to "China it up" - I can think of no other way to describe the film's overall idiotic approach to grabbing various bits and pieces of Chinese filmmaking, technique from across the years - Caro and company have attempted to make this an American wuxia, basically, and some of the tropes of that genre are found all throughout its action setpieces: people running up walls, flipping around, the camera floats and glides. The final fight takes place on a set that's pretty much just a giant jungle gym, to facilitate all of the above. There are two problems with this: first, it's cut to hell. Second, it doesn't seem to get why these films look the way they do. There's no overall approach to the fights, just chunks - the jumping on the roof chunk, the "do that thing where you point your fingers above your sword" chunk, the spinning in a circle chunk. A good fight in a wuxia film - even a bad fight in a wuxia film - is something like a cross between a dance and a poem. There's not a trace of that here. Nor is there a trace of the rich sense of history sweeping up the individual characters that can be found in a great wuxia film. Or in Disney's earlier Mulan, for that matter. The new Mulan exists outside of history just as much as it exists outside of real-world China; the narrative stakes feel smaller than we're told they are, and the characters don't feel like they're being marched into place by fate, but by uninspired screenwriting. It's basically just "What if Harry Potter was an Asian girl?", and frankly even that makes it sound more creative and inspired than I found to be  the case.