It is now December 2020. If I am not mistaken, Mulan was originally supposed to be released on March 20th…what a year it has been. Technically speaking, Mulan has been out on Disney+ for $30 for a few months now, but since my motivation to see it has been pretty low, so I had no problem waiting until this past Friday to view it for free. This live-action remake of the 1998 animated classic was directed by Niki Caro and stars Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li.
WARNING: Some Spoilers ahead…but probably not that many lol.
A More Culturally Accurate Take on a Classic Story
Or is it? All of the noise leading up to this film was around how much they had deviated from the original. No Mushu, no General Shiang, Shan Yu, and worst of all…no songs. How would it even feel like Mulan? It is now clear that the goal was improved cultural accuracy. It’s no secret that the original Mulan isn’t exactly a beloved classic among the Chinese people. This version was supposed to honor the source folklore while representing the culture in which it is set with more attention to detail. All of the Chinese characters were played by Chinese actors with authentic Chinese accents. The biggest question I had going in was how Niki Caro would be able to scrape his film clean of all cultural inaccuracies while maintaining the magic and nostalgia of such a critically acclaimed Disney classic. Did he succeed?
More Magic is Less Magic
Sure, they took out the talking dragon and ghostly ancestors, but somehow I still found this version of Mulan to be less grounded than the original. The main culprit? Chi (or qi depending on how you spell it). Chi is loosely defined in Chinese culture as the force that makes up and binds together all things in the universe. In this movie, it is clear that some people are more gifted and able to use Chi to be more agile, athletic, acrobatic, and strong. If Chi sounds a lot like the force then Mulan was gifted with all the midi-chlorians. Chi is more-or-less used as an ex-Machina to allow Mulan to have some kind of special power that makes her a better warrior than all of her male counterparts. In the original film, Mulan trained hard and used her cleverness and wit against her enemies. She was able to display incredible bravery, courage, and strength while still coming across as a very real and relatable heroine. In this version, she is turned into some kind of chi superhero just to make sure there was no doubt in any of our minds that she could beat up any of the men in a fight.
Another added element to the remake is the witch character Xianniang. She is a shapeshifter that basically functions as an irrelevant female antagonist that exists for the sole purpose of having a few female vs female “girl power” scenes. She has absolutely no depth and the decisions she makes are not backed up by realistic reasoning. SPOILER…She eventually sacrifices herself to save Mulan. Why the heck did she decide to do that? Because Mulan is also a woman that is doing what is deemed “man’s work” by the culture at the time? That seems to be the only reasoning given. If there is more to Xianniang’s arc then I must’ve missed it because it was so pointless that I wasn’t paying attention.
After that last paragraph, you probably get the sense that I really didn’t like this movie…and you’d be right. However, there are some silver linings. If you can look past all of the over-the-top CGI and effects used in a lot of the more fast-paced scenes, there is some cool cinematography at work. Additionally, I think the stunt work was pretty great as well. Liu Yifei does most of her own stunts which adds a lot to the authentic feeling of some of the action scenes. There was also a neat scene where some Huns on horseback dropped to the side of the horse and did like a flip-turn that ended with them facing backward on the horse so they could shoot arrows at Mulan, who was pursuing behind them. They performed this move all while the horse was in a full-on gallop and there didn’t seem to be any CGI so it was pretty impressive overall.
The decisions made it the writing of 2020’s Mulan are baffling me. It’s amazing to me that a remake with an extra 32 minutes of runtime could actually feel like it had significantly worse pacing and less time for character development than the animated original. The original film was a beloved classic that did so much in developing a strong female lead in a Disney Princess. One that not only saved her love interest, but also all of China. That unique message at the time was one of my favorite parts of the original and I honestly felt like this version tried to take that message and force feed it down my throat. The story in itself made no sense either. I don’t feel for Xianniang even though I think I am supposed to. I don’t care much at all for the other soldiers, and I just had to look up the main villain’s name (Bori Khan) even though I watched the movie yesterday. I still don’t know or care about his motivation. Mulan (1998) is my 4th favorite movie of all-time in my ranking of all the Disney animated feature films, and I was just really disappointed pretty much across the board with this remake. That is all…rant over.
What did you think of Mulan (2020)? Where does it fall in your ranking of Disney’s live-action remakes?
If you are interested in checking out an interview I did with Tom Bancroft, creator of Mushu from the original Mulan, follow one of these links!