Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Gong Li
Bringing honor to one’s family varies upon different cultures and time periods. For some, it may simply mean living a good and moral lifestyle but for the women in this film’s era, it meant being a good match for a male suitor. Breaking away from that specific tradition means dishonor of the highest order, but sometimes things need to be shaken up like the trailblazer Mulan does in this new live-action remake.
Hu Mulan (Yifei Liu) has always been told to live her life being loyal, brave, and true. With this, she breaks all the conventions of being a calm woman by using her chi. With an invasion of mainland China on the horizon the emperor calls for every family to send a fighting male and in an effort to protect her father from death, she takes his place with the risk of further bringing dishonor.
Tried and true, the story of Mulan has served as an inspirational beacon for many young children growing up to be unafraid. The titular character represents a woman who enters a camp of all-men and keeps up with them stride by stride without them noticing. The popularity of the animated version has consistently grown since its 1998 premiere and has staked a claim in the hearts of many individuals. With the fairly putrid track record of success of their live-action remakes, Disney has shown no interest in making quality art but rather hollow exercises in brand management, but this iteration of Mulan can be considered a success with a bevy of issues.
The biggest shift occurs in the overall tone of the story with this one being much more serious than the musical nature of the animated version. It felt grittier as a result where a sassy talking dragon did not follow around Mulan, but that does not necessarily mean all the magic disappeared. Instead, they employed it in a different and smarter way to play into the feminist theme of the movie overall. This plays out both in Mulan’s journey of looking for choice but also the villainous character Xianniang (Gong Li). She has powers and uses them to her advantage, which has labeled her a witch and an outcast to any semblance of normal life. This has pushed her to fight for whatever may be advantageous for her and serves as both the foil and the example for Mulan, who sits right on the edge of receiving the same label whenever she uses her chi. When a woman displays any of these attributes, they are labeled a witch, but if it enhances a man’s combat, no mention gets made except for adding to the brilliance.
Making this story into the live-action created its new obstacles of depicting how Mulan could realistically pull off not being recognized as a woman at these war camps and the film’s handling of it mostly works. The best part arises when all the men shower together but there’s a chance to serve on night guard duty at the watchtower, which she eagerly takes. After a while, she begins to reek because she genuinely does not shower for a good stretch of time to avoid being seen naked by her fellow soldiers. The deepened voice did not always work but the titular character seamlessly weaved her way through in a satisfying manner and subsequently outperformed each of them.
With an expansive world to build and the budget to do it, I was somewhat disappointed by how small the sets felt. This happens especially in Mulan’s hometown where it felt cramped at times. For the astronomical budget of this film, perhaps more was expected for the final product on my behalf on the technical side. The action had some good moments, but it did feel a bit tempered because of it being under the Disney banner. None of the combat felt like it had any real repercussions and it appeared they were merely play-fighting the whole time.
The heart and soul of the movie and the idea of choice remain the strength throughout and when it focuses on Mulan as a character navigating familial and cultural expectations, it truly shines. Yifei Liu does fairly well in this role as the titular character, as she sells the necessary physicality and very elegantly maneuvers the distinct fighting style her character brings to the battlefield. It’s always nice to see Donnie Yen and Tzi Ma also getting a chance to be stern father figures as well.
Of the several terrible live-action remakes, 2020’s version of Mulan cannot join that particular dumpster. It does plenty to differentiate itself from the original in a meaningful way even if it does not measure up fully. The way it ends captures the true spirit of this remake and what makes it a valuable entry into the Disney canon. All of the visual aspects may be lacking but the story remains engaging and uplifting.