Mulan Review | I'll Remake a Man Out of You

Like many of my generation, I grew up on Disney's animated films. I remember sitting in front of our box TV, constantly rewinding my VHS to replay Beauty and the Beast for the millionth time. While my personal favorites will always be Beauty and the Beast, The Aristocats, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it's easy to see, even after all these years, that Mulan is one of Disney's best. And now, as Disney goes through their vault to remake their classics, it's time for Mulan to come to life through live-action. Now I am aware that there's a lot of politics that surround the 2020 Mulan but I want to make it clear that I will not be addressing any of that here. What I say will be from the point of view of a filmmaker and film-watcher. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Mulan is set in an Imperial China that is under attack. The Emperor sends an order that each family is to send one able man to fight in the war. Fa Mulan (Liu Yifei) is a young woman whose already injured father is asked to fight because he has no sons to do so. Fearing that her father would not return alive, Mulan sets out in the dead of night, disguised as a boy, to fight for her family. 

The sizeable cast of characters overall does well with what they're given. Though the uninspired and on-the-nose dialogue paired with rushed character development gives little room for any true acting ability to shine through. Liu Yifei as Mulan has a few emotional scenes, but overall is quite stiff, which it seems is what the story demanded, even if it made the character's development and inner turmoil lose some of its impact. The side characters are underdeveloped but have a few memorable moments. Most notable were Jet Li as the Emperor and Donnie Yen as the Commander. Mulan's fellow soldiers, Ling (Jimmy Wong), Po (Doua Moua), Yao (Chen Tang), Cricket (Jun Yu), and of course her love-interest Honghui (Yoson An), give a few instances of needed levity and comradery to the film.

Set designs and costumes are the highlights of Mulan. There are elaborate sets that feel alive and lived in, and costumes, designed by Bina Daigler, are intricate and mostly historically accurate. These work to create a nice backdrop for Mulan's adventure, full of vibrant colors that make the frames come to life. Speaking of frames, despite some awkward shots and noticeable CGI, Mulan often has some beautiful cinematography. There are some wonderful establishing shots of scenery that feel authentic to the setting. The fights are passable for the most part with the final battle being the best one by far. However, much like the rest of the film, the fights left a lot to be desired. They weren't poorly done (though some of the green screen work was) but they also don't hold a candle to the film's that they seem so influenced by. Especially considering the Mulan's supposed budget of $200 million.

My biggest gripe with the live-action Mulan is that it lacks the soul that made the original so great. This is the result of a few different things. The live-action film removes several characters that made the 1998 film special, such as Mushu and Cricket. Although they are reworked into the script in other ways, they don't have the same personality. The film is also not a musical, so none of the original's amazing songs, like I'll Make a Man Out of You and A Girl Worth Fighting For, make an appearance as more than a cursory piece of dialogue, some background music, and as a backdrop to the credits. I can understand wanting to remove songs to tell a serious story but I've also watched enough Indian films to know the presence of a song doesn't need to devalue a film's themes. However, moving past that, perhaps the biggest change in Mulan is Mulan herself. In the original, Mulan was just an ordinary girl who has to step up to a daunting task for the safety of her family. In this film, she is born special, full of Chi. With the opening flashback of young Mulan, we see she is no longer a clumsy and lost young girl but a gifted child prodigy that is misunderstood. And by the time she enters the training camp she is already far and above the rest of the recruits. Meaning that she doesn't have to overcome much more than ensuring the other soldiers don't notice she's a woman. 

The live-action film also adds a new villain in the form of the Witch, played by Li Gong, who acts as a sidekick to Khan. However, her purpose in the film is muddled. She starts off as an ominous and powerful force for evil but then gives Mulan a "girl power" talk out of the blue. This makes one wonder about the significance of her inclusion in the first place. This also becomes an issue if you take a second to actually look at Mongolian culture. There was no such thing as witches, but instead shamans and shamanesses who are highly revered no matter their gender. There is no fear of women with magic in their history, and the idea of a woman being exiled for having powers is a European mindset that has no place in this Asian setting. But even if you ignore that issue, both the addition of the Witch and the changes to Mulan's character alters the overall theme of this film from the original. It no longer shows girls that no matter who they are, they can excel at anything they set their minds to. Instead, the 2020 Mulan seems to suggest that you can excel at anything if you're born special, though the intended theme is to not hide the fact that you're special. I found this change particularly upsetting as I remember connecting with Mulan as a little girl because of her perseverance. At the start of the story, Mulan wasn't that good at anything and sort of a slacker with no innate skills, but she worked hard and became one of the best soldiers in China. Meanwhile, this new Mulan, with her magical abilities, felt alienating in her suggestion that some extraordinary skills or talents were necessary to be the best, a point that made it hard for me to connect with. To see what made her so accessible and inspiring in the original film stripped away was a bit hard to watch and I was left feeling like the intended theme was both unearned and underdeveloped. 

In the end, Mulan is a well-produced yet unnecessary remake of a fantastic film. Despite great color grading, set design, costuming, and cinematography, the film strays too far from the original, and at nearly 30 minutes over the run time of the 1998 Mulan, it somehow manages to have less substance. Then there is the matter of its release. While it was initially meant to hit theaters on March 27, like many other films during COVID, Disney decided to go with a VoD release. Mulan became available on September 4 via Disney Plus premiere access, which costs an additional $30 on top of the existing monthly fee for the service. This can be a very steep price for a movie that is less than 2 hours long. Especially when considering the older, and better, animated film is on the service at no additional cost. For those who do not want to pay extra, and I would recommend you don't, Mulan will be added to the service for regular viewing in December.

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