Movie Review: Disney’s Live Action Mulan
In recent years, Disney has developed a cottage industry by remaking its own animated movies.
These “live-action” take-twos often bear a strong resemblance to the originals, which causes some critics to question their necessity.
Disney’s most recent release took a different approach, as the film discarded two integral elements of the first film. Did the daring attempt succeed?
Here are my thoughts on Mulan, Disney’s unluckiest live-action remake.
In 1998, Walt Disney Animation produced its first Eastern film, Mulan.
Like virtually all classic Disney animated tales, Mulan’s origins combine myth and legend about a folk hero.
The difference here is that Hua Mulan was most likely a real person, a female heroine who fought alongside and bested men in battle.
Historians debate the point, but the original ballad about the character lines up with historical data from the fourth through the sixth centuries.
Also, Mulan‘s tale doesn’t involve the supernatural, an unusual approach for Chinese fiction of the era.
In the mid-1990s, squarely in the middle of the Disney Decade, the company wanted more films with strong female protagonists.
A Chinese warrior woman whose battle skills stood the test of time definitely qualifies.
So, Mulan became the company’s latest animated masterpiece.
Recently inducted Disney Legend Ming-Na Wen played the title character, while Eddie Murphy added comic relief as a dragon named Mushu.
Audiences loved the film, leading to its strong box office performance. Mulan finished in seventh place for 1998.
Critics felt similarly, as Rotten Tomatoes critics rank the film 86 percent fresh. Also, the movie won an Annie award for Best Animated Feature.
Before the Academy Awards added an animation category, this Annie represented the highest honor for an animated film.
The Backstory about Mulan 2020
The remake has seemingly suffered pitfalls from the start. Disney felt strongly about hiring a female director and settled on Niki Caro.
Caro’s 2002 title, Whale Rider, provided inspiration for some aspects of 2016’s Moana. She has since directed several other films.
Each one’s calling card is that it’s set in a unique sect of civilization with its own social mores and challenges.
Obviously, that description fits the bill perfectly for Mulan, a kind of spiritual successor to Whale Rider. Or, given the 1998 movie, maybe the reverse is true.
Anyway, the point is that Caro has mastered the art of a strong female protagonist battling to overcome the sexist societal structure.
Caro cast Liu Yifei, which creates some fascinating connections for Disney fans.In Mulan, Yifei reunites with Jet Li, with whom she previously appeared in a 2008 movie called The Forbidden Kingdom.
This project didn’t come from Disney, but Rob Minkoff, who won an Academy Award for The Lion King.
So, Yifei came highly recommended. Alas, she made some political comments about Hong Kong’s police behavior that led to #BoycottMulan protests.
Disney still expected the movie to perform exceptionally well. It was tracking for an $80 million opening weekend in North America.
Then, the pandemic hit and imploded the entire film industry.
For a time, Disney tried to reschedule Mulan but eventually settled on an unprecedented strategy.Disney+ subscribers can buy Mulan for $29.99 on the streaming service. And that’s how I watched the film.
The Beauty and Differences of Mulan
I’ve done many reviews of films that I watched for the first time at home rather than the theater.
However, Mulan requires a comparison since Disney had to sacrifice the theatrical release to make the movie available to more customers right now.
As I started the film, my first thought involved its beauty. Disney spent extra money on the production to perfect the IMAX experience.
That decision seems regrettable in hindsight, but it definitely enhances the picture quality.
I watched the movie on an excellent 4K HDR television and felt like I received a theater-worthy viewing experience.
Yes, Mulan would have looked better on IMAX, but that’s like saying Shula’s Steakhouse would serve me better meat than Five Guys.
Most of the time, I’m perfectly happy with a Five Guys burger, saving a decadent Cowboy Ribeye for a special occasion. Mulan feels the same in that I actually preferred watching it the way that we did.
I noticed some green screen elements, but that’s because I’ve covered cinema for more than 20 years. Few people would.
Instead, what they’ll notice are the sumptuous visuals from this Chinese epic.
At times, the closest comparison for this version of Mulan isn’t the 1998 movie; it’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon instead.
Caro has crafted a more adult take on Mulan’s tale, which may alienate some fans of the original.
Mushu isn’t in this film, and the songs are gone, too. For that matter, Shan Yu is no longer the villain.
Viewers should drop their preconceived notions about the 2020 take on the characters. It’s not like you remember at all.
To an extent, Mulan starts from scratch, a first for a Disney live-action remake.
Think of this film as a concert performance of a hit song.
You know the beats and the rhythm, but the pacing is different, and a drunken singer may change the lyrics on a whim.
Personally, I quite like this approach. Last year’s Lion King remake actively frustrated me, as I thought the film played it safe.
Mulan works as a standalone movie that stands beside the 1998 version rather than shamelessly cheats off that paper.
Yifei demonstrates great chemistry with Tzi Ma and Xana Tang, who play Mulan’s father and sister.
I cannot say that I bought the same connection with Chen Honghui, a handsome man who passes as the film’s marginal love interest.
Mulan earns the man’s respect, but I don’t buy them as potential lovers at all.
Similarly, some of the other soldiers in Mulan’s Imperial Army unit fail to distinguish themselves.
Oddly, these military training and fight scenes work anyway, as Caro has constructed several engaging but universally understandable scenes.
Someone’s terrible with weapons, someone’s too cocksure, and Mulan needs a shower since she can’t bathe with the boys.
None of these will surprise you with originality, just as Mulan’s meeting with a matchmaker plays out predictably. They’re still quite entertaining, though.
The Highs and Lows of Mulan
Notably, the film builds to some battle sequences that are perhaps too brief, but the wirework feels fittingly impactful.
Also, some of these fights take place against breathtaking backdrops that sometimes distracted me away from the action too much.
I cannot stress enough how gorgeous this movie looks. It retroactively justifies the HDTV purchase I made a few months ago.
I haven’t felt this way about a movie since the first time I showed off the 3-D version of The Lion King animated film to my family about nine years ago.
My main regret involves Jet Li and his opponent in the film, Jason Scott Lee.
Li’s one of the greatest action heroes in the history of world cinema, but he feels a bit wasted here.
Virtually any middle-aged Chinese actor could have played this role, which breaks my heart.
Similarly, I’ve been all-in on Jason Scott Lee since I watched Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, my favorite release in 1993.
Lee’s a curiosity as an actor, as he only works when he wants. Still, everyone in the industry knows he’s a natural.
As the villain here, Lee’s role as Bori Khan feels…perfunctory. I was never scared of him or deemed him a valid threat to Mulan.
Both Lee and Li’s characters feel underwritten and underdeveloped.
The Best Part of Mulan
However, screen legend Gong Li saves the day here.
The Chinese actress tried her hand at American cinema for a while, but then a disastrous Miami Vice shoot proved that she’d be happier at home.
Li stakes a claim as the greatest muse for Zhang Yimou, the famed director who earned the honor of running the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics.
Suffice to say that Li’s the gold standard of Chinese ingenues, but she’s always demonstrated a ferocity with her acting.
Her teeth are out in Mulan as Xian Lang, the terrifying witch who has tipped the balance of power to Khan’s army.
Li’s the best part of this film to the point where I almost wish she’d been the final boss. In watching Mulan, you’ll understand why Caro went a different way, though.
I adore the resolution of Li’s character. However, that moment left me with the grim realization that I still had another fight ahead, one that interested me far less.
Overall, I found the story of Mulan substandard by Caro’s standards. It’s a far cry from Whale Rider, for sure.
Still, I quite enjoyed the movie. There’s a moment when Mulan reunites with a family member that I should have found corny and predictable.
Instead, I laughed hard, but I was drowned out by my wife, who belted out a scream of joy at what was honesty a mediocre joke.
As I reflect on that moment, I realize that we both bought in on Mulan as a character and a story.
I plan to re-watch the film a couple more times this week, which I can thanks to Premier Access, an option I’ve wanted literally my entire adult life.
So, I found a lot of positives here. Overall, I’d give Mulan about a B+ or a 7.5 out of 10.
I would offer a word of caution for parents. This film isn’t child-friendly, a stark contrast to the animated title.
The subject matter receives a more adult treatment here.
You’ll like it more, but your children under 12 may find it scary or boring or both.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the following. I got chills at this moment: “I believe Hua Mulan.”
Feature Image Rights: Disney