Mulan and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Niki Caro
I’ll be honest, the animated Mulan wasn’t exactly one of my go to films when I was a kid. I was more of an Aladdin/Pixar fan and while I remember Mulan being GOOD, it never really stuck with me like a lot of other films did. But hey! That’s why Disney is doing all these remakes in the first place, right? To not only cash in on Nostalgia dollars for people who DO remember the original but to try and get the people who didn’t care for it the first time to invest in the property and maybe build a new theme park ride around it. Does this remake of the 1998 classic hold up to and even SURPASS the original, or is this another live action remake from Disney that fails to bring anything new or interesting to the table? Let’s find out!!
China is being attacked by the… Not Huns (Let’s get down to business! To defeat… the Rouran Khaganate!) and it seems they have a witch on their side (Gong Li) that’s wreaking havoc on their outposts along the Silk Road. In order to stop these invaders, the Emperor (Jet Li) orders the conscription of one man from every family in the country, and one of the villages they arrive at (which looks quite a bit like the slums from Kung Fu Hustle) is the home of Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) and her family. Her father (Tzi Ma) having no sons of his own volunteers to go despite having fought in a previous war and has a disabled leg because of it, but as you know this doesn’t sit well with Mulan and so she goes in her father’s stead; leaving the village in the dead of night and donning the identity of a man. Mulan under the guise of Hua Jun must make it through the intense training of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) while also keeping her identity as well as her overwhelming strength a secret; lest she bring shame on her family or even be executed by the very country she’s here to defend. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the awesome witch lady might have the right idea, but Mulan is not about to let a little thing like impending death keep her from protecting her family and her homeland! Will Mulan be able to successfully navigate the men’s world of warfare without her secret being discovered? Who are these villainous rouges attacking China, and what’s driving them on their quest to conquer the country? If they make a sequel to this, will it ALSO be about a feminist revolution in China or will they go in a different direction with it?
I don’t know what everyone wanted to see in a Mulan movie and I’m not anywhere NEAR up to date on what’s going on with Chinese cinema right now, so I can only really speak to the most basic elements of what Disney was going for and whether or not it succeeded at doing it. To put it bluntly, it’s bad but not in a way that gets me particularly riled up. There’s decent acting I suppose and the saving grace is its technical aspects coupled with decent Wuxia action, but it’s one of those movies that has a longer lists of what it DOESN’T want to be rather than what it DOES want to be. It’s a humorless and rather sterile affair that scrubs clean the flaws of the animated Mulan film which in certain aspects it IS an improvement; particularly in terms of how it caricaturized Chinese culture and certain characters. Even so, there’s almost nothing left aside from the focus on Wuxia action to fill in the gaps left behind so the narrative and characters feel undercut and leaves only its themes to take center stage which, if nothing else, feel a bit misguided. Is it fair to criticize the moral underpinnings of the story as well as the gender politics it plays with when it’s trying to be from an Eastern perspective? I honestly have no idea as my understanding of these topics from that perspective is non-existent, but I get the sense that Disney handling here is haphazard at best as they try to fit square shaped culture into a Disney shaped peg. I guess you could say that was the problem with the original Mulan (or pretty much any movie that’s set within a non-Western culture), but something tells me the lack of songs, the lack of humor, and the lack of fun characters is going to give this one much less of a shelf life; despite whatever merits it may have.
If you’re looking for an updated version of the Disney movie, you could argue that it is here as they do recreate scenes and lift dialogue straight from that film, but like a lot of these Disney remakes it feels like the point is less to retell the story but to re-contextualize the original for what Disney perceives is a more critical modern audience. Like with Beauty and the Beast though, the “fixes” as it were don’t work towards strengthening the movie itself which is still squeezing in whatever sequences it can redo to hit people’s nostalgia buttons. Perhaps you could argue that Eddie Murphy as a goofy dragon giving her advice doesn’t come off as completely sensitive, but what do we gain by removing it? There’s a Phoenix that comes in and out of the movie that’s the spiritual guide for Mulan, but it’s just a giant bird that doesn’t talk or interact with Mulan outside of symbolic gestures. In fact, that’s what this movie is; it’s a series of sizzle reel shots and portentous moments in lieu of an actual narrative, because I guess flaws and humor would get in the way of the BOLD NEW VISION OF EMPOWERMENT that this movie is cynically aiming for. The only time the movie DOES come to life, at least when it comes to character interactions, are the bad guys who have an interesting dynamic and a few spots here and there where Hua Jun is interacting with other soldiers who have the names of some people we may recognize from the first film but like a tenth of their personality. Other than that, it’s mostly bland stoicism throughout, and I couldn’t really find much to care about in her hero’s journey.
The best parts of the movie though, and what has kept me from dismissing the movie outright, are the action set pieces which are fun to watch; especially the ones involving our primary antagonists. The stunt work is solid, the cinematography is creatively executed, and it’s full of bright colors that really makes everything pop in a way that you don’t often get with a lot of CG heavy modern blockbusters. Mulan being rewritten as something close to a CHOSEN ONE (considering how strong she is right out of the gate) doesn’t help the narrative as her being such a natural at combat kind of undercuts the whole “EQUALITY” narrative; more or less saying that the only way the system will overlook your bold defiance if you overachieve to a startling degree. Still, it may have had to be something of a necessary choice considering how much more the action plays into this story as it gives us an excuse for her to be a part of the well-choreographed action sequences, and frankly the narrative has enough problems that sacrificing the action to slightly fix one of them isn’t a trade off I’d make for the is movie. Obviously there are better movies out there when it comes to this kind of action (and the wire work is a bit TOO obvious considering how high the budget is), but it’s definitely the one area of the film that genuinely improves upon the original.
Where things star to get messy though is when the politics come in, and I’m not talking about all the stuff surrounding the release of this movie, though I guess the issues are inextricably intertwined. This wants to be more authentic and respectful to Chinese culture, but in doing so muddies its own message. The main character is supposed to be a rebuke to the system; to prove their pre-conceived notions wrong and to grow and change. In this one, you get the sense that all of the growth is coming from Mulan and nowhere else as her journey comes off more like she’s straying from the righteous path and has to correct herself rather than acknowledge inequalities in the system. This is why I was kind of rooting for the villains; especially the witch character who wants nothing more than to be treated as an equal to men and where her story goes is not exactly what I’d call a fulfilling arc. Then again, I’m looking at this film from my own American perspective and I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of Seven Samurai where he notes how the duality of Kurosawa’s influences (Eastern and Western filmmaking) clash at the ending; Western audiences seeing the Samurai not get the girl would feel it as a tragedy while Japanese audiences at the time might have considered it a more fitting ending. Then again, THAT movie was from an authentically Japanese perspective and I guess that’s what it all comes down to for this. If this had been just another Wuxia action movie with all the same creatives involved (or the same basic movie but sans Disney’s oversight), I think this would have been framed a lot better and the tone would have felt more authentic. With Disney though, it feels like there was a mandate to add that Disney RespectabilityTM to it which only shines a spotlight on its own poor understanding of the culture it’s trying to “faithfully represent”. The movie refers to Chi (spelled that way in the subtitles) as a powerful force for warriors that more or less allows certain characters in the movie to use wire-fu, and I could probably point to a hundred or more authentically Chinese movies that do the exact same thing, but because this is a Western film TRYING TO PAY RESPECT TO CHINESE CULTURE, it comes off as pretty tone oblivious and undercuts the paper thin veneer of this being the genuine article.
There are PLENTY of movies out there that are more authentic and still manage to have WAY more fun than Disney is having with this film, so while I would say that this is a decent enough time waster along the lines of The Great Wall (another movie with a shaky understanding of its place in the larger conversation of cultural appropriation) it’s not nearly as good as its pretentions proclaim it to be. It sure as heck isn’t worth the thirty bucks Disney is hoping to rake in from every Disney+ subscriber, but on balance I still think Beauty and the Beast was worse. Now if the Beast has a few kung-fu battles with the villagers or if Belle could run on walls, THEN it’d be a different story!