MULAN Review

As always, context is important and when it comes to Disney's 2020 re-imagining of the story of Mulan it should be noted that I was twelve years-old when the original animated film was released. That film, coming in between the likes of Hercules and Tarzan would signal the end of Disney's animation renaissance of the nineties and in many ways-though there are live-action re-imaginings of The Little Mermaid and Hercules among others in the works-this new Mulan somewhat feels as if it also signals the end of this particular brand exercise. What's most disappointing though, is this very easily could have felt like a turning point instead of a conclusion, but alas director Niki Caro's (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) re-imagining of the material fails to inspire its own identity despite diverting the most from the original blueprint. Having now seen live-action adaptations of most if not all of those Ashman and Menken collaborations along with the likes of the classic princess tales (surely Disney won't make its own Snow White, Peter Pan, or Pinocchio again after so many iterations already having been produc...*googles furiously*...oh no) it would seem this trend has more or less run its course with more critical failures than successes even if most have knocked it out of the park in terms of box office. How this pertains to Caro's vision of the fictional folk heroine from the Northern and Southern dynasties of Chinese history though has to do with how audiences have come to perceive the film. Once regarded as the opportunity among the other, more formulaic fairy tales to become an authentic historical epic with sweeping visuals, large battles, and a brave female lead the sequence of events that have led Mulan to landing on Disney+ for an added premiere price seems to have reduced the impact of said opportunity. It's impossible to say if first impressions might have been stronger had the initial experience with Caro's film been on the big screen rather than from the comfort of my own home, but given some of the blatantly bad CGI work in a handful of shots it could have certainly come across worse as well, I guess. This is all to say that 2020's live-action version of Mulan funnily enough ends up making many of the same mistakes as its predecessors despite trying the hardest not to. This Mulan removes many of the elements that infused so much life and energy into the original without bothering to substitute them with anything new or substantial even as that seems to be the intent and not to simply strip away your favorite childhood aspects (and save money on a CGI dragon) for the hell of it. Good intentions are always honorable (at least, one would hope), but the danger in adjusting a narrative that already worked so well and leaning more heavily into a certain theme tends to undo the crucial balance that was struck-likely not easily-before. As someone who found not only the music, but the arc of the camaraderie between our heroine and her newfound peers along with the strong tonal balance the animated film exhibited alarmingly well as a child I had hopes that as an adult Caro's version-while clearly leaning into the more historical, less-musical side of things-might find its own balance and sense of self-being as well, but the biggest issue with Caro's film is that it knows it needs to be a massive, epic adventure, but doesn't really have any idea what it wants to be.       
Powerful Witch Xianniang (Li Gong) is positioned as the new villain in Niki Caro's Mulan interpretation.
© 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In the 1998 animated film, Mulan broke conventional expectations with a new type of female hero and 2020's version more or less sticks with the same basic premise of that original. When a Chinese dynasty is invaded a young maiden disguises herself as a male warrior to save her elderly father (Tzi Ma) from having to join the army. That said, this is where the similarities end as the four credited screenwriters, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World) along with relative newcomers Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek, have added and axed several notable character's from the animated film as Mulan now has a sister named Xiu (Xana Tang) whereas Army Captain Li Shang who fell for Mulan in the original is nowhere to be found, but has instead been replaced by a love interest named Chen Honghui (Yoson An), a military recruit who becomes one of Mulan's few allies. There's also the technical replacement of original Hun villain Shan Yu with Jason Scott Lee's Böri Khan, but Lee's character is largely a front of an antagonist here as Mulan's actual nemesis is that of a powerful female witch named Xianniang (Li Gong). Xianniang is a foretelling of what Mulan could become if she were to allow her "qi" to engulf her and take over which is an interesting take and something one might argue could bring those "new" and "substantial" aspects to this updated version of the story and I agree, they certainly could, but outside of a single scene an hour into the movie where Mulan and Xianniang face off against one another to illustrate that Mulan deserves to be known and respected for who she is and what she brings to the table as a soldier rather than it being hid underneath a disguise there is seemingly no other reason for this character to exist. The complexity of the dynamic between Mulan and Xianniang is not explored and the scene ends abruptly when Xianniang believes herself to have killed Mulan, but doesn't hang around for a few extra minutes to make sure. Don't get me wrong, the scene looks great as it's set in between the mountains where steam is billowing from every corner of the frame as the frozen ground appears a sickly green color rather than the typical white making it feel as if the witch has infected the location with her evil magic, but the interaction is so emotionally vacant beyond the obvious "don't be afraid to be yourself" message even when the truth would definitely guarantee execution and bring shame upon ones family for generations making this argument or push for theme, to put it bluntly, rather weak. 

The existence and inclusion of Xianniang also brings us to yet another change in Caro's film as not only is magic real and present, but Mulan is essentially imbued with said magic from the very beginning. The aforementioned "qi" Mulan possesses ultimately gives the character a fail-safe which in turn gives the story zero stakes as to the outcome of our hero's story. After re-watching the animated film after this new live-action version it is clear this alteration-which could have excluded the magic in favor of having it been her father's training and misplaced desire for a son as the reason for Mulan's skill with a sword-is the biggest offender in terms of changes made with no valuable collateral to add. This single difference alters the entire arc of Mulan as a character and instead of forcing her to find funny, creative, and-most importantly-charismatic ways to solve her problems she instead is already a skilled soldier when she arrives at camp and has no areas in which growth is necessary or crucial to being able to convince her commanding officers that not only is she a man, but a man worthy of serving in the Chinese army. Rather, the only thing that holds any weight or tension throughout the training montages in Caro's film is that Mulan cannot reveal said true identity. Boiling Mulan's entire character arc down to a single objective and then having the antagonist speak to this objective as a misguided one that then resolves the character's internal conflict while still having a whole hour left in your movie not only strips the film of any real tension or motivation for investment, but almost literally gives actress Yifei Liu only a single note to play as the titular character. This isn't to say Liu is bad in the role, she seemingly does what she can with what she was given on the page, but this certainly feels like a case where the creative teams bent over backwards in order to try and find ways to make alterations to the story in order to make it feel fresh and potentially more relevant to today's audiences, but went in so many circles that they wound up writing themselves into this corner. Mulan is no longer forced to find her way out of uncertain situations because of both her hidden gender and the fact she's ill-equipped for the task at hand, but solely because of her gender so when she reveals her truth shortly after the aforementioned hour mark it quickly becomes apparent the film will then stick mostly to large action beats to purport its entertainment value and thus gives viewers little reason to continue investing in it. Speaking of investments, it is at this turning point into the third act that it also becomes apparent no one involved in the making of this ($200 million) project had any real goal of pushing the story, its meaning, and/or its purpose any further than what they were given in the script to construct. The intent is good, sure, but once you hear these bland and underdeveloped characters incorporate lines of lyrics from songs in the original film into plain conversation it immediately registers as lazy and uninspiring and unfortunately speaks to more of the project as a whole than it doesn't.  

Yifei Liu plays the titular character in 2020's Mulan and is set to ride into battle.
© 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Mulan's father, Zhou, has a line in the film where he is responding to his daughter's comment about his inscribed sword and how beautiful it is to which Zhou states it is a "beautiful tool for terrible work." This could also apply to all the time, effort, ideas and other beautiful tools that must be utilized in order to continue creating these true to life versions of Disney classics that always end up somehow being less realized than their cartoon counterparts. It's been true since the beginning with Tim Burton's empty take on Alice in Wonderland through to Bill Condon's lifeless Beauty and the Beast and onto Jon Favreau's even more hollow take on The Lion King. Sure, Favreau's The Jungle Book had some charm and wonder to it while Kenneth Branagh was able to strike a surprising balance in his version of Cinderella, and last year's Aladdin was charming thanks in large part to its cast as well as director Guy Ritchie really leaning into the scale, but even with these exceptions it would seem all of that time and talent might have been better focused on new, original stories and concepts rather than being spent on re-hashing a past product that, in most cases, required little to no improvement. So, where does Mulan fall in the ranks of these live action Disney re-makes? Well, it would certainly be somewhere above the CGI-laden worlds of the Alice films, the first Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, but not much else. The one that comes to mind as most comparable is actually last year's Dumbo as that film's CG-heavy elements were complimented with equal heart and authenticity. Caro's Mulan accomplishes these things on a surface-level, but is also under more scrutiny as my affinity for the original 1941 Dumbo isn't nearly as great as it is for the original Mulan and therefore may be somewhat skewed in that regard. Needless to say, Mulan is very much the average, inoffensive, middle-of-the-road final product that Disney wholeheartedly intended and expected for it to be and it will win both many fans and please the majority of casual viewers with its familiar structure and consistent action sequences, but while passably entertaining is one metric by which to judge yourself 2020's Mulan ultimately submits itself as something that has shades of something more ambitious and fulfilling; a compelling take on the coming of age film in a time period and environment not often seen in the West on such a scale, but rather than taking the time to find what is genuinely impactful in the scene where Mulan's father volunteers to fight despite his age, or to find the earnestness when Honghui opens himself up to Mulan for the first time, or build to the true triumph of Mulan carrying buckets of water to the top of a mountain this interpretation settles for spectacle and seriousness none of which either replace or overcome the memory of the original.     

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