Author’s Note: This review does contain spoilers, specifically spoilers regarding elements present in this remake that are not in the original animated film. So even if you’ve seen the original but still care about this remake I would advise reading with caution.
2020 is an exhausting year for film fans. Not only have many high-profile films been pushed back due to coronavirus, but the cinematic experience has also been crippled as a result of the virus. But as lockdown’s lift across the globe we’re starting to see a return to the Summer blockbusters we normally expect to see, one of the most contentious of the line-up is Disney’s latest attempt at remaking an animated classic in live-action. We’ve seen this with The Lion King, Dumbo and Beauty and the Beast, among others. The general critical consensus of these adaptations have been pretty dire, whereas financially we’ve seen some of these adaptations make a ton of money at the box office, which is a shame in my opinion due to the lack of creative vision and voice that seem integral to Disney’s making of these remakes. I may have given the game away by the tone of this introduction alone but yes, Mulan is bad. It takes everything so great about the original and butchers it in an attempt of faux-feminism and faux-cultural appreciation.
The plot of Mulan, in case you somehow haven’t seen the original, is based on Chinese folklore following a girl, called Hua Mulan who despite being a woman joins the national army in lieu of her aging father while pretending to be a man as to not dishonour her family by fighting as a woman. Along the way we see her trials and tribulations as she trains and integrates into the very male world of the army camp, as well as the progress of the war going on between the Chinese army and the Rouran warriors. None of the battle scenes really live up to the style and flourish of the animated film, the effects can look a bit janky at times, and the fight choreography is fine, but really nothing special.
Where this remake differs from the animated film is the introduction of an antagonist who reflects Mulan’s journey as a woman; Gong Li plays Xianniang, a witch who was exiled due to her powers. This is purposefully played off the opening scenes showing Mulan’s childhood where her Father explains that she too shows power that only a “warrior” should exhibit. The film makes a pretty clear argument, that extends further than just in Chinese culture, that powerful Women have traditionally been labelled as witches or evil, whereas strong men are heralded as heroes. This is, obviously, a strong message that needs to be said, and in a female led blockbuster that will have the eyes of a lot of children, specifically girls, on it I’m glad the film goes down this route.
However, the main reason why I used the term “faux-feminism” in the introduction is that the ‘core message’ that Women can be just as strong as Men, is how shallow and vapid the pay-off feels. In her showdowns with Xianniang, Mulan goes back and forth with her about how being true and good will pay off regardless of her gender while Xianniang is trying to convince Mulan that the Rouran warriors, once they win, will usher in a society where female warriors will be seen as equal to male ones. It’s a pretty standard writing trope, we’ve seen it in Black Panther, Star Wars and a whole slew of films, and of course Mulan doesn’t stray and remains loyal to her country. But by the end of the film, Xianniang has sacrificed herself so that Mulan can succeed and after returning home, Mulan is honoured by her family, her community and even the Emperor….but that’s it. There’s no massive collective shift in gender equality, no re-examination of the systemic issues that created the environment to begin with, Mulan is always shown as ‘the outsider’ for the whole film, and always with the strength of a warrior, so it just seems like everyone collectively accepted Mulan but the line ended there. Xianniang gets no retribution, or any kind of closure except from helping Mulan succeed, and for a premise for a new character that felt actually interesting it ends up feeling so lacklustre and ultimately a hollow attempt at giving the film a “message”.
While Mulan was going to have a heavy task at living up to the visuals of the animated classic, it felt like the crew weren’t even trying. For a culture and period bursting with colour, the cinematography consistently looked bland and grey. For all the different settings for battles, and buildings, the design just looked so unmotivated, lacking in energy, and the scenes suffer as a result of it. There’s attempts to echo that stylistic, dynamic filmmaking that can be seen in so many classic Chinese action films, but they look cheap and tacky in Mulan, the camera feels stunted when it should feel fluid, and the boring production design neuters the impact these moments could have had. The visuals, especially after scrapping the songs, were arguably the area where the film, above all else, should have excelled, but the film is lifeless and just completely lacking in passion.
Overall I think it’s fair to say that Mulan has been a nightmare for Disney. Between the political and cultural scandals revolving Yifei Liu’s comments in support of the police after the Hong Kong riots, the coronavirus halting the films momentum, and the more recent controversy after it came to light that filming had taken place in provinces of China linked to the detention of Uighur Muslims en masse. Between these serious real-world issues, as well as the dispassionate filmmaking on show and a limp script with paperthin characters, Mulan ends up feeling forgettable and will likely join the rest of Disney’s live-action remakes as a flash in the pan with no longevity to it.