I should confess at the onset to harboring an inordinate fondness for the Disney animated film Mulan. It was partly a matter of serendipity: When it was released on video, I had a young daughter with whom I spent a great deal of time. The movie ran counter to the my-prince-will-come passivity of the Disney princesses and starred a young woman who saved the day based entirely on her own bravery and wits. It was a solid story, a great message, and it didn't hurt (for me) that young Mulan was willing to move mountains for her beloved father.
So one would think that a retelling of this tale at a theater with the resources of Children's Theatre Company might dig even deeper, given CTC's sterling track record of storytelling and production values. One might expect more than, say, a tepid, almost scene-by-scene approximation of the film that offers nothing new while leaving a wealth of nuance and subtext untouched. And one would be wrong.
The story is unchanged from the original: Mulan is a young woman in feudal China. The barbarous Huns are threatening the empire, and the Emperor has mandated that one man from every family be conscripted into the army. The rub is that Mulan's father is a wounded war veteran and faces certain death if he complies. He insists on doing so, honor being paramount, but while he sleeps Mulan grabs his armor and sword and sets off to take his place, posing as a man and in the early going providing comic relief via her cartoonish attempts at masculinity.
Disney's Mulan Jr.
Children's Theatre Company
through June 13
Katie Bradley is the titular heroine here, adequate on the musical numbers and plucky in her performance. She has an appealing presence, but there's little sense of Mulan's character that couldn't be derived from the movie (and here's where the production, and director David Mann, fall down: Imitating an animated feature doesn't cut it). Mulan is, after all, a real weirdo: unsuitable for the disapproving village Matchmaker (Samantha Perry) and a quixotic gender-bender who falls for Captain Shang (Joshua James Campbell) while saving his ass from the Huns.
Every Disney protagonist needs a sidekick, and Eddie Murphy was cruelly hilarious as Mushu the dragon in the movie. Here we see Dean Holt crammed into a garishly ugly costume that resembles Day-Glo body armor; Holt, as gifted a physical performer as any, is reduced to shimmying and mugging, his face largely obscured, and he and Bradley barely seem to be in the same psychic area code.
Of course Mulan ends up saving the empire, though what was white-knuckle in the movie feels here like being released at the end of a drab day at school. Even company stalwart Gerald Drake, as toady careerist Chi Fu, seems ready to check his watch to ascertain when this will all be over. By the time the lights go up, all that's left is a particular sense of fatigue that accompanies competent mediocrity.
The car ride home with my children after this one was uncomfortable. Mulan, at least between my daughter and me, has the nature of a formative myth: Bravery, resilience, resourcefulness, and, yes, romance are all part of a girl's aspirations and future in a life well lived. But what to make of what we had seen—a piece of product executed entirely within safe limits, with no inspiration, no sense of ever being grabbed by the gut and made to think, or to feel?
Pippi Longstocking at CTC reduced my son to tears when he was a kindergartener. I witnessed Hansel and Gretel bring a dangerous, fearful edge to that big, familiar room. And The Watsons Go to Birmingham enabled my daughter and me to talk about race with an honesty and intellectual directness we might not have otherwise found. To my mind, that's what CTC does—that is the standard.
If they're going to adapt a film, then they should improve on it. They haven't.