The Newest Disney Live-Action Remake Ends Up Blunting Its Powerful Source Material
One pleasant aspect of the money-bait live-action Disney remakes is their modernization of certain tropes that were outdated when the original films came out. This helped put more satisfying endings and spins to Dumbo(2019) and The Jungle Book (2016). However, The Lion King (2019) seemed to show that the House of Mouse was sometimes remaking perfectly fine films and changing very little about them. Mulan (1998) was an incredibly progressive film in showcasing a female empowerment story in a genre where women were still expected to be passive princesses. This along with a gripping story, likeable characters, and catchy music made Mulan an instant Disney classic. Thus, it left one very curious as to what a remake could do to modernize it for today’s audiences.
Mulan (2020) is the story of Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) a young girl in medieval China. When the Rouran peoples begin invading from the north, the Chinese Emperor (Jet Li) decides to have a conscription of one man from each family into the Imperial Army. Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma), however, is already an old injured war veteran, and, having no sons, is forced to sign up. Mulan, wanting to save her father’s life, decides to take his place and impersonates a man.
The story of Mulan had mythical status in China long before the original Disney movie, which was an adaptation of such. The new Mulan is able to bring about a bit more respect and authenticity with this original legend, infusing the narrative with details of medieval Chinese culture and mythology. The Rourans have a witch (Li Gong) aiding them, introducing an element of magic. This substitutes the comedic dragon Mushu from the first film, which while a fan favorite outside China, was ridiculing an important cultural creature for the Chinese. Director Niki Caro is able to bring about a pleasing visual aesthetic, utilizing establishment shots to show off natural scenery or the impressive imperial city, and also the use of colors in everything from costumes to battle weapons. Aside from this, however, the new Mulan seems to be worsening things that had already been given to them with the original.
The feminist message was already strong and very effective in the animated version, to the point of being personally emotional in the final scenes. This live-action version seems to think viewers dumbed down since then, and statement scenes are then unnecessarily explicated verbally or repeated to an obnoxious degree of redundancy. This waters down the feminist message in some respects, as it doesn’t allow dramatic moments to stand by their own strength. There were even some scenes from the original that were taken out that would have been incredibly powerful statements here. One of them being the male soldiers dressing up as women in turn to infiltrate the Emperor’s palace. Such neat parallels and introspections into the cross-dressing facets of the story are completely let go here.
Then there are the characters, who were extremely likeable and respectful in the original film, and yet seemed to become incredibly shallow and one-note with this version. Side characters appear to be mere caricatures that don’t even help bring a point across. The animation’s songs generally helped give different dimension to each character, making them flawed in their sexism, but still appealing. The new characters added, specifically that of the witch are extremely boring and ineffective to the general outcome of the story. This Mulan even betrays the character motivations it sets out in the first place, and riddles plot holes in the story that the animated version never had.
The cast is not able to bring much electricity to the film either, Liu as Mulan left much to be desired in terms of range; she seemed capable of only a few emotions and wasn’t able to bring her character’s big dilemma in a convincing way. As for the special effects in the film, I was surprised to see how many of them were unconvincing. Whenever actors are jumping around in martial arts fights, they look very clearly held up on wires, and the narrative seems to shift and cut corners in order to avoid showing specific visual creations. If the film had had a modest budget this would have been understandable, but Mulan had a whopping $200 million at its production disposal.
In the end, Mulan was a rather frustrating watch. One is first pleased at the attempt of bringing about a more Chinese-authentic story with respect to the culture. But nearly everything else seems to be worsened from the blueprints the filmmakers inherited in the animated film. This version of Mulan ends up being a forgettable and wasted opportunity at bringing the effective feminist message of the original to a live-action version. The film has nothing to say with no clear vision either, the final result is yet another carefully tailored cash-grab. Why am I surprised anymore?