Now that Mulan has been free for nearly a week, I’d like to take a more in-depth look at the film. My friend and fellow writer Munir will be joining me in comparing Mulan to its animated counterpart and digging deeper into the characters and performances. Since I already have my spoiler-free review up, why don’t you go first, Munir? What did you think of the film overall?
Munir: Hello, Virginia; it’s nice to be back. First, I would say that Mulan was the only live-action remake I was somewhat interested in. After the disastrous Beauty and the Beast in 2017, I was done with the remakes, and I skipped all of the 2019 ones (and, from what I can gather, I didn’t miss much). But Mulan struck me as having potential, mainly because it deviated from the animated version, and it was not a shot by shot remake like most of the others. The trailers were good, and I was even a little bit excited to see it. Then, after I saw it, it was a complete disappointment. Yes, it’s not a carbon copy of the animated film, but that’s about the only positive thing I can say about it. The story and the performances (with a few exceptions) left a lot to be desired.
Virginia: I had a similar experience. I would agree that you didn’t miss much; the only remake I really liked during that period was Dumbo. The trailers for Mulan won me over almost immediately. The visual style and story looked different enough to warrant a watch. I honestly believed this could be the exception that proves the rule with regards to the remakes. However, and I suspect you’ll disagree with me here, I still think the best thing to come out of this trend is 2015’s Cinderella. That’s one of my favorite movies, and it’s certainly the only Disney remake I can say that about.
M: I have some problems with Cinderella’s third act, but overall I would say it’s one of the better ones. However, with Mulan, I had issues with most of the movie. Yes, the visuals are great, but that only takes you so far. Mulan as a character did not have any development, and if your main character does not have an arc, do you really have a movie?
V: I agree wholeheartedly. Mulan is one of Disney’s best lead characters because of the tremendous character growth she undergoes. She’s easy to empathize with because her journey is relatable and difficult. One of the worst aspects of the remake, and quite possibly the very worst, is the lead character. This version of Mulan is indestructible and overpowered. I don’t like a character like this anyway, but the fact that this is supposed to be Mulan is insulting. Mulan was a dynamic, flawed character who made mistakes throughout the story. Of all the changes made, this one was a huge mistake.
M: Exactly, and Yifei Liu’s performance is lifeless. There’s no charisma or any semblance of vulnerability. She just blindly performs her duty. And the arc with the witch was wholly underwritten. She had the potential to be a good character, but she was wasted, and her death did not mean anything.
V: Agreed about the witch, whose name I don’t think they even say during the film (though it was released in promotional materials). Disney seems to do that a lot; see Bruni in Frozen II. She was actually one element I wasn’t initially thrilled about, but Gong Li is a wonderful actress, and the idea grew on me. I thought it was a strange idea to include a witch since it looked like they were going for a more grounded, realistic approach to the story, but I like witches in general. However, she just isn’t in the film enough to leave an impact. She has a great character design (and, again, a terrific actress), and I like the concept of showing her as a parallel dark outcome for Mulan. But it doesn’t work because they only talk to each other twice, and the witch’s backstory is shoehorned into a line of dialogue that isn’t even spoken by her. I think this movie has too many characters, and most of them suffer for it.
M: Agreed. And, on the same subject, I was very underwhelmed with Mulan’s love interest (if you can call it that). I was fine when they didn’t include Shang, but what they did was awful. I don’t even remember his name because of how generic he was. And his dynamic with Mulan feels forced and has no chemistry.
V: I thought the same. To be honest, I found their relationship confusing. He pushes Mulan and calls her “little man” when she’s in disguise, starting things off on the wrong foot. This is all well and good, but when he later apologizes and offers to be friends, she is callous and downright mean in response. I know she wanted him to go away so he wouldn’t see her body in the water and realize she’s a girl, but it was just so cruelly done. And unlike him, she never apologizes or explains why she did it, even once everyone knows she’s a girl. In the end, he offers her his hand, and she briefly takes it. I guess the implication is obviously that they plan to date somewhere down the line, but it’s just so awkward. I never sensed any kind of connection between these two characters, and their relationship wasn’t believable. I prefer Shang for his connection with Mulan, which develops from dislike to friendship and mutual trust to a budding romance. He also had his own storyline and issues with his father, which made him much more interesting.
M: Indeed. Also, Mulan’s family (with the exception of the father) was very unlikeable. In the animated film, you never dislike Fa Li, even though she wants her daughter to fall in line with what’s expected of her. You can sense that she loves her. Here, the mother is really mean and very unlikeable and feels like she uses Mulan as a prop and doesn’t see her as a daughter. On the other hand, the sister is a completely wasted character, as she briefly appears at the beginning to mess things up and then appears at the end and betrothed. It’s ironic, as Mulan comes back a warrior, defying society’s rules, and her sister just becomes part of the system, so it makes you question if things are really going to change or if Mulan is just an aberration to the rule. The dad fared much better, but that’s not surprising as, similar to the animated film, he had the greater connection with her.
V: Yes, I hated the mom. She’s so mean in this version, and I don’t know why. In the animated film, she was loving and just wanted what was best for Mulan. In this movie, she’s constantly making mean comments and even tells Mulan’s father that no man would want to marry her. That’s so harsh, especially to say about your child. I also thought the sister served no purpose other than to mess up Mulan’s meeting with the Matchmaker since this is the only thing she ever does that affects the story. And much like Mulan’s pseudo-boyfriend, she has no chemistry with the sister anyway. I never felt anything for them. I also think having the sister mess things up with the Matchmaker was a big mistake. In the animated film, it was such a disaster and so embarrassing because Mulan did it herself and blamed herself for disgracing her family. Also, showing the Matchmaker again at the end and having her faint when Mulan comes back is so dumb. Who cares about that character or how she feels seeing Mulan? At least the animated Matchmaker was entertaining and memorable.
M: Do you think part of these issues is because the whole crew was white? Because I know the animated film had white directors and many in the crew were white, but they did have a screenwriter (Rita Hsiao) and many artists of Asian descent that provided the look and design of the film. (For more info, check out The Art of Mulan by Jeff Kurtti.) Here, the whole crew was white, and it feels like they were afraid to make these characters memorable, and, instead, they treated them reverentially, scared they might offend someone. But if you see films like The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians, you can see how these movies portrayed authentic characters with engaging arcs and vulnerabilities. Here, everyone is stoic, almost afraid of laughing, and makes the film completely lifeless. I think that just having diversity on-screen is not doing any good if, off-screen, the crew can’t capture the mood and feel of the characters.
V: That’s an interesting point, and I have to be honest, I hadn’t even thought of that. It kind of makes sense, though, kind of like how some writers are afraid to write flawed, believable female characters for fear of offending people or showing women in a bad light. The characters in this film (with only two exceptions, in my opinion: Donnie Yen as the general and Tzi Ma as Mulan’s dad) are bland and flat. If this wasn’t a Disney movie and I wasn’t generally a pretty big Disney fan, I know I’d forget the film as soon as the review was posted. Before we finish up, I also want to mention the movie trying to feel more adult and mature. This was definitely the impression the trailer gave, and having seen the film, I think that was the intent. However, if that was indeed the goal, I find some creative decisions puzzling. Why did they cut the scene where Mulan steals her father’s armor and prepares, both physically and mentally, for the choice she’s about to make? This was a beautiful scene visually, aurally, and for what it meant for the character. This is a hard decision where lives hang in the balance, and Mulan has no way of knowing what will happen. This is the first step Mulan takes towards taking control of the situation rather than just expressing her feelings about it. In the live-action film, the scene simply cuts to her in full battle regalia. What a shame, a net loss to the film overall, and especially for the character. This is emblematic of the problems faced by the whole movie, in which everything comes easy to Mulan. She doesn’t have to labor over choices or face physical and mental obstacles because she starts this film as a goddess. Another scene they remove for no apparent reason is the one which follows “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” where they discover the destroyed village. This is where Shang finds out his father has died in battle, and it ties into the doll Shan-Yu found earlier. The little girl who owned it, and everyone in this town, was killed, leaving only ash and debris. This is the first time the war feels real to Mulan and her comrades. They’d trained and gained some physical strength and discipline, but they weren’t ready for this. Shang wasn’t ready to face the fact that his father is dead, and he no longer stood in his shadow. Again, a crucial moment that is lost, with nothing of equal or greater value put in its place.
M: Agreed. I think, in their quest to do things differently, they forgot what made this story special in the first place and just hastily added changes that did not make any sense. As you say, here, Mulan is basically a superhero with no trials or tribulations, which automatically makes the story fall on its nose. They didn’t have to copy the animated film, but understand what made these moments special and come with their own versions instead of just skipping over them and sucking the life out of the movie.
V: It’s just such a shame. I know I keep saying that, but it’s hard not to. So much was lost in translation, and very little, if anything, was gained. If they wanted to make a completely different version of the story, OK then, do that. But if that’s the case, why all the choppy dialogue quoting the songs from the original? Why play pieces of Jerry Goldsmith’s score over scenes in which they played in the animated version? The problem isn’t that Mushu and the songs are gone. The problem here is that the wrong things were changed and the wrong things were kept. This film is such a waste.
M: Agreed completely. Like most Disney live-action remakes, it doesn’t justify its existence other than being cheap nostalgia in order to earn big bucks. That’s it. The only part where I genuinely smiled was when Ming-Na Wen appeared, and that’s because I love her, and she reminded me of the vastly superior animated version.
M: To sum things up, the new live-action Mulan may look good, but it doesn’t offer anything in terms of character, story, or feelings. It’s a lifeless affair, full of puzzling choices and with performances that are flat and generic for the most part. It’s the perfect case of wasted potential. If you still want to see it, you can do it on Disney+, but you’ll be better off with the classic animated version.
V: Or you could watch Hamilton.