The marketing campaign for Disney’s live-action Mulan remake was truly something to behold. Each trailer made this movie seem more justified, more like it had something to offer that differed from the animated classic. When this movie was announced, I kind of thought it might actually be a good idea. Mulan is the kind of story that you can approach in several different ways, and the animated film isn’t as ingrained in pop culture as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, giving the creative team a little more wiggle room. By the time Disney released the final trailer, this was far and away my most anticipated film of 2020. Unfortunately, Mulan was one of many COVID casualties, and I was crushed when they announced it wouldn’t be going to theaters. Nonetheless, this movie is now free on Disney+, and I gave it a watch. Let’s dig in.
Mulan follows the story we all know, but with a few key changes. In this movie, Mulan has one little sister, as opposed to being an only child. When Mulan is a child, she displays amazing abilities and a propensity to wield chi – which, for some reason, grants magical powers in this movie. Unlike in the original film, it’s Mulan’s mother, not her father, who really has a problem with Mulan’s behavior. According to her, Mulan’s abilities won’t make her a suitable wife, which will complicate her life and bring dishonor to the family. When the Emperor commands every Chinese family to send one man to the army to fight the northern invaders, Mulan steals away in the night, taking her elderly father’s place to save his life. Unlike in the animated film, being a soldier comes naturally to Mulan thanks to her powers and skills. She also exposes herself as a woman here, rather than being found out by the doctor who saves her after she’s injured. For that matter, she never sustains an injury in the first place. Mulan must ultimately save the Emperor, defeat the foreign threat, and assert her position as a female warrior.
I think it’s good to start off with the positives, especially since, in this case, I don’t have that many. The sets, landscapes, and costumes in this film are positively breathtaking. Mulan is one of the best-looking live-action movies Disney has done in a while, and it’s quite an immersive experience. It also looks very different from the animated film, and I appreciate that this remake isn’t afraid of using various bright colors instead of the washed-out look they gave the remakes of The Lion King and Alice in Wonderland. I also think it’s worth mentioning that Tzi Ma and Donnie Yen are excellent as Mulan’s father and the general of the army, respectively. Mulan’s father is different from Fa Zhou in the animated film, but I like him a lot. He has this aura of honor and respect, but also vulnerability and care for his family. There’s a scene between him and Mulan that takes place after the fight at the dinner table where they discuss war, courage, and fear. It’s a nice, touching little scene that takes its time and allows the characters (and the audience) to breathe. This sort of replaces one of my favorite moments from the animated film, in which Fa Zhou encourages Mulan by telling her that “the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all,” comparing her to a late-blooming flower on their tree. This is the only change made in the film that is almost, if not as good as the original version. Given the changes to Mulan’s character and the story, calling her a “late bloomer” wouldn’t make much sense. This small, quiet moment of our heroine connecting with her father gives us a taste of what I wish the rest of the film were like.
While that scene was put in to replace one that didn’t belong in this version, many other changes in this film make little sense. When Mulan meets the Matchmaker (and her mother and sister come along for… some reason…), disaster ensues, just like in the animated movie. But in this case, Mulan doesn’t do anything wrong. She makes no mistake. Her sister flips the table because she sees a bug, but the Matchmaker still dismisses Mulan in disgrace, proclaiming to the whole town that the Hua family has failed to raise a good daughter. This makes no sense, and Mulan actually probably saved the situation from being worse by catching the teacups from the air (although they ultimately break anyway). This is the only thing Mulan’s sister ever does, and she serves no purpose to the larger story, so I guess she exists to mess things up for Mulan. Someone has to because this version of Mulan is perfect and stands above mortal concerns like judgment calls and character flaws. Her only mistake lies in holding her powers back, since society won’t accept a woman who has chi. By the way, this is really stupid because chi isn’t some magical power some people have; it’s just the life force that resides in everyone, regardless of gender or anything else. I also question why, if chi in this movie is basically a superpower, are Mulan and the witch the only female characters who possess/wield it? If the message is that women can do and be anything, why does that only pertain to two of the women in the movie? Weird.
But, of course, this misses the point entirely in the first place. The original Mulan wasn’t a superhero or a god; at the beginning of the movie, she couldn’t even wield a sword or hold her own in a fistfight. The animated Mulan had to cultivate these abilities to overcome the challenges she encountered as a woman in the army. Whereas the animated film’s training scenes served to show Mulan becoming stronger, more disciplined, and confident, in this movie, the only barrier she must overcome is holding herself back. This training montage isn’t set to a catchy song, but more importantly, it doesn’t display tremendous character growth like the original did. Mulan is always right and always strong enough; she just needs to show it. I don’t find this very “inspiring” or “empowering” because the girls and women this is supposedly meant to inspire can’t be superheroes. We can’t fly around and run up walls. Real life isn’t like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The animated movie was actually more realistic (if you want to go there) because, while it had a talking dragon and the intervention of Mulan’s long-dead ancestors, she had to work hard to achieve her goals. She was constantly learning and growing, so when the Emperor honored her at the end, you wanted to cheer with the citizens. When Mulan’s father embraced her and said she was his greatest pride and honor, it was satisfying because you knew just what that meant to her. That Mulan risked her life to save her father. This Mulan risked expulsion from the army.
Tying into that, Mulan’s characters are bland, and their connections are mostly surface-level and unearned. Yifei Liu looks the part (except for when she reveals herself as a woman in the climax; that’s dumb). But she has no charisma, and because she’s essentially a superhero and a ninja rolled up in one, we don’t feel for her. She’s never in any real danger. Tzi Ma, as her father, is the only character she has any chemistry with. Relationships with her mom (who is a real piece of work in this version, let me tell you), her sister, Gong Li’s witch Xianniang, and even her love interest (?) are meaningless and difficult to get invested in. I found her relationship with one of the soldiers confusing because he shows attraction to her, and there’s a hint at the end that he may be interested in “matching” with her. The problem is that this comes out of nowhere, and she treats him with contempt until it’s too late. Is the movie trying to make these two a couple? Because she has about as much romantic chemistry with him as she does with Xianniang. Her conflict with the soldier is resolved too quickly and poses no real difficulty. For that matter, Xianniang needed more screentime, less verbal exposition, and more time with Mulan for this “we’re the same, you and me” crap to work. It comes off as forced and an afterthought, so when Xianniang makes her ultimate choice, it doesn’t feel warranted. Gong Li is actually good in this role (as she always is), so it’s a real shame. I also find her abilities confusing. Is she taking over the bodies of the people she impersonates, or simply shape-shifting? It doesn’t matter to the overall story that much, but this is one character I actually wanted to know more about. It was gorgeous when she spread differently colored sand everywhere to hide her transformation, even if it would only hide her from the audience, not the people in town. There’s too much expository dialogue between her and Jason Scott Lee’s main antagonist, who’s definitely not Shan-Yu. They try to give him a motivation outside of wanting power, and it could have been effective, but they just mention it briefly. He never seems to be going through any pain, and he’s not exactly on a righteous quest. Another wasted element.
The editing of Mulan ranged from competent to downright confusing. Oftentimes, the sound of dialogue is intermingled with that of intense action sequences. I’ve watched the film twice, and there are still parts that sound choppy and others that I can’t make out at all. The script itself also has some cringy lines, some of which are taken directly from the songs in the animated film. For a movie that was advertised as something different, I would have liked fewer direct references to a movie that I would rather be watching. They also continually reference sons and daughters. For example, chi is for sons, not daughters, etc. This just sounds very clunky because, rather than writing fluid dialogue that sounds natural in context, they have to fit in as many references to musical numbers as they can. I found it more appropriate and effective when this movie’s musical score took bits from the original by Jerry Goldsmith. This score is composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, and it’s actually quite good. The editing hits visual snags, too; some of the action is just a mess, and you can’t make out what’s happening and who’s involved. There’s a scene early in the film that cuts back and forth between three different scenes, and it took me a second viewing to figure out what was even happening.
Mulan is a mess. It’s not completely horrible, and it’s certainly not boring, but it’s also such a waste. It’s bold visually but too afraid to let go of its animated counterpart. It removes much of the charm that film held, and what takes its place is mostly puzzling. There are a couple of differences that are clever, or at least work well enough not to be distracting. But, overall, I feel like this film was unsure of whether it wanted to be a remake or a totally new version of the timeless tale. If pretty visuals and Hong Kong-style action sequences (granted, poorly executed and filmed ones) are enough for you, I’d say go for it. After all, if you have Disney+, the film is free now. But if you look for interesting characters and relationships like I do, this probably isn’t the film for you.