“Mulan”- Movie Review

Since the mid-2010s Disney has been hammering at their list of potential live-action remakes. Lately, it seems like their main trajectory is the Renaissance era, as evidenced by Beauty and the Beast (2017), Aladdin (2019), The Lion King (2019) and upcoming adaptations of The Little Mermaid and Hercules. Of all the projects in the lineup, a new adaptation of Mulan has the potential to be something great.

For the most part, this latest remake follows the same bare-bones plot as the 1998 version. Yifei Liu sets into the titular role of Mulan, a spirited young woman who lives with her parents and sister in rural imperial China. As she struggles to do her part in bringing honor to the family name, soldiers arrive at her village with a decree from the emperor: one man from every village must serve in his army and fight off an invasion of rogues led by warrior leader Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), and a shape shifting witch called Xian lang (Gong Li). Worried that her frail father wouldn’t survive the war, she decides to take his place in the army. She disguises herself as a male, gives herself a new name, and sets out for the war.

I tend to measure the Disney live-action remakes on a scale of “bleh” to “meh”. None of them are great. They’re all pointless cash grabs, and a few of them definitely feel that way. The better ones- Cinderella (2015) and 101 Dalmations (1996)– at the very least were able to capture the spirits of their animated counterparts, and even then they’re not great adaptations. The Mulan remake falls into the middle tier, standing shoulder to shoulder with films like The Jungle Book (2016) and Aladdin (2019). And within this tier, it sits neatly at the bottom.

The film runs into the same conceptual problem most of Disney’s live-action remakes run into- the fact that it’s a remake. It wants to have it’s own identity and take a different approach, albeit slightly, to the Mulan story. At the same time, it’s a remake of not only a Disney movie, a Disney Renaissance-era movie. Fans of the original will light up their torches and sharpen their pitchforks if specific parts, lines, music cues were missing. So the film tries to be the best of both worlds, though it doesn’t know which beats to keep from the original, which ones to omit, which ones to emphasize, and which ones to gloss through. The end result is a benign misfire that could have been much stronger.

Courtesy of The Walt Disney Studios

Still, the film isn’t without a few redeeming qualities. The cinematography is stunning, and its fuller embrace of Chinese culture grants the movie more of an authentic aesthetic appeal. The action scenes are also pretty fun. Director Niki Caro films them in such a way that you can feel a sense of scale, the magnitude of the battle. Aside from a few weird fuzzy-framed close-up shots here and there, these sequences are well put together. Performance-wise, everyone is fine. Nobody stands out as being especially bad or good. The acting is a little on a bland side, but I think much of that has to do with the script, which I’ll get to in a second.

The feministic aspect of the story is conveyed differently here than in the animated version. In the ’98 version, Mulan was an average girl who felt like she couldn’t meet the traditional expectations set by her family and society, and through her journey of serving in the army, she discovers and eventually embraces her inner strength. So hers isn’t just a story about a badass woman who goes against the status quo. It’s a story about growth, about finding one’s strength in a world that disregards you. The 2020 version sort of touches on the latter half of that argument. Here, Mulan is perfect from the get-go. We see her as a child already possessing the preciseness, agility and fearlessness of a seasoned fighter. And through the course of the movie, her struggle is less about growth and more about whether or not she’ll embrace her innate awesomeness. It’s not a terrible interpretation, but it’s not as relatable. Strong female characters are more interesting- and more inspiring- when you see them learn and overcome their weaknesses. Their inherent badassery is cool, but it doesn’t leave as strong of an impression.

The lack of development can be said for all of the characters, not just Mulan. The script is very weak, the dialogue awkward and full of redundancies (if you took a shot every time someone says “honor” or “dishonor” you’ll be tanked by the end of the first act). For having a nearly 2-hour running time, the film doesn’t take the time to make it’s characters three-dimensional. You don’t get to know the soldiers Mulan is fighting alongside with, you don’t get to know the relationship between her and her sister- whose existence is completely pointless, by the way- and you don’t get to know the villains. Bori Kahn and Xian Lang aren’t as threatening as they could have been. Their motivations are paper thin, and their dynamic is surprisingly dull. The screenplay adds these new elements to this familiar narrative then doesn’t follow through in giving them three dimensions.

In the end we’re left with yet another underwhelming Disney live-action remake. It fails to capture the whole spirit of the ’98 version and fully realize it’s own unique vision. The narrative tries to mix what we already love about the animated film with a new interpretation, with messy results. But it’s not a complete disaster. It’s a well-made film, both aesthetically and in terms of its action scenes. So is Mulan (2020) worth the $30 premier access price? No. Will it be worth your time on a lazy night in December, when the movie will be free for all Disney+ subscribers? Sure. If you’re interested.

Cosmic Grade- 3/5 Stars

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