Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Liu Yifei in Mulan

Mulan improves Disney’s live-action remake record but not by enough

The hype surrounding Disney’s new Mulan seemed to paint a more encouraging picture than what audiences have come to expect from the studio’s live-action remakes of its animated classics. And in some ways, the film does deliver on the promise of an improvement. A few years ago, this U.S./China co-production might’ve been the victim of Hollywood whitewashing (see: The Great Wall), but Disney has now prized authenticity and assembled an all-Asian cast of Chinese megastars and Hollywood regulars. At the helm is the underrated Kiwi director Niki Caro, one of the few women afforded a production budget larger than $100 million. It’s not a beat-for-beat re-creation or a joyless rehash of the animated original like last year’s The Lion King or Aladdin; aspiring instead to a slightly more serious action-adventure saga, it throws out the talking dragons and catchy musical numbers. Yet this Mulan makes its adjustments while still aiming to be as widely palatable as possible, and in the process, ends up short on both character development and emotional heft. Rather than lean into the more mature elements that make it stand out, the movie does frustratingly little with its noteworthy upgrades on the original, resulting in a version of the story that’s only superficially more sophisticated.

It’s no big secret that Disney envisioned Mulan as a means of conquering the lucrative Chinese market, the second-biggest box office in the world and poised to soon be the first. The absence of Mushu, for instance, isn’t exactly an inspired creative decision so much as a strategic one—the silly dragon sidekick, voiced by Eddie Murphy in the original, did not play well with Chinese audiences back in 1998. The animated Mulan is a deeply stereotypical depiction of China—an American’s understanding of the country—so the live-action remake necessarily takes a different approach. At the very least, the outcome is visually stunning, with otherworldly production design and lush costumes that recall the vivid, fantastical style of Chinese wuxia films.

Hua Mulan, still a small girl at the start of the film, chases a chicken across the rooftops of her walled, donut-shaped village, a setting modeled after the Hakka communities of southern China. From the get-go, she demonstrates preternatural physical abilities, flipping and twirling with ease to the shock and awe of disapproving neighbors. Time passes, and Mulan (now played by Liu Yifei) struggles to bring honor to her family. Caro speeds through the ceremonial makeover and jumbles the comedic notes of a tight-laced tea session with the local matchmaker. These moments might have functioned as palpable examples of how the culture’s gender norms stifle the free-spirited Mulan, but they’re never allowed room to breathe. We understand she’s suffocated because her father, Zhou (Tzi Ma, sadly given little to do), sounds like a broken record, countlessly mentioning honor and dishonor.

Mulan assumes a male identity and heads to training camp in her aging father’s stead when he receives a draft notice from the emperor. A radiant phoenix appears and guides her in the right direction when she loses her way—an unnecessary recurring bit that plainly reads like an excuse for Mulan to get lost and visit as many breathtaking locales as possible. At camp, she meets and immediately impresses Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and her fellow soldiers, including the handsome and capable Chen Honghui (Yoson An). In a deviation from the animated movie, Mulan doesn’t become a gifted warrior through the course of her training so much as gradually reveals her latent powers.

Mulan
Mulan
Photo: Disney+

Disney prides itself in bringing timeless values to the screen, and Mulan’s mix of feminist-lite individualism, commitment to family, and patriotism continues this trend. “Loyal, brave, and true” are the words branded on her family sword (and the name of the new Christina Aguilera song tied to the film’s release). Remembering that Mulan is in fact a children’s movie may excuse the innocuous messaging, but there’s a general apprehension to go beyond the lessons of the original in this purportedly edgier and more adult take.

The most meaningful change comes with the introduction of a shape-shifting witch, Xian Lang (Gong Li), enlisted by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the leader of the Rouran invaders from the north. Xian Lang, a practitioner of black magic and the Rouran’s most valuable weapon, has something to gain from Khan’s revolution: acceptance and the ability to live among others in peace. The sorceress goes out of her way to remind Mulan that women like themselves will never be accepted for who they truly are, which adds dimension to the heroine’s own journey of self-discovery. Xian Lang works outside and against the system to better her circumstances, but these methods prove self-sabotaging. Mulan, on the other hand, will be rewarded for her steadfast loyalty to father and crown. We’re given just enough to make sense of these implications, but Xian Lang’s storyline peters out prematurely once the action ramps up. That the script was written and rewritten by four different writers might explain the film’s disjointedness and awkward, anticlimactic emotional beats.

Meanwhile, Böri Khan and his black-clad marauders never really seem to pose the dire threat intended. Their desire for vengeance is only ever briefly touched upon. Could their anger be justified? The Rouran’s nemesis, the Chinese emperor (an unrecognizable Jet Li, donning gilded threads and topped with a luminescent halo), conveys an almost frightening godliness. The film emphasizes his strength and power, which makes him seem all the more capable of wronging the incensed northerners. What are the film’s politics, anyway? It goes unquestioned that the emperor means good and the invaders mean bad, though we’re not given many reasons why beyond the patriotic call of duty and the emperor’s visually inscribed Mandate Of Heaven.

Mulan
Mulan
Photo: Disney+

As Mulan, Liu Yifei holds her own against Gong Li’s steely enchantress and Donnie Yen’s exacting, impassioned commander. When she releases her unruly, flowing hair and charges into battle, unfazed to be recognized as a woman, the moment is triumphant. But yet again the scene is cut short by the need to move on to the next big thing. Rather than keep up the momentum, the film’s constantly shifting backdrops—and its introduction of new elements and obstacles—flattens the mood. When our characters arrive at the Imperial Palace, shades of Zhang Yimou’s House Of Flying Daggers and Hero promise epic large-scale action. But Mulan’s wuxia parallels prove disappointingly minor, despite a brief but impressive scene of Jet Li single-handedly fending off his assailants, and the gratifying tricks of Mulan’s final showdown, an intricately choreographed, acrobatic tussle on wooden scaffolding.

These visceral, dancelike moments of action choreography are too rare; one gets the sense that Caro wanted to strike a middle ground between more realistic-looking sword-and-shield combat and the magic of wuxia-style wire-fu, and ended up inserting the latter haphazardly. Rather than exploit the dazzling setting, the director bizarrely limits the final battle scenes to small, mostly colorless spaces that throw off our sense of location. Given the impressive scope of the movie, and its lengthy runtime, it’s disappointing that Mulan never manages to breathe life into its many environments, or its plot points for that matter. Instead it rushes thoughtlessly past what matters most, hoping the pretty spectacle and cultural accuracies will suffice.

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