Like the animated musical that inspired it, Disney’s live-action Mulan is based on an ancient legend of a young warrior who defies gender norms in an act of courage to protect her family and home land.
Last year, the shot-for-shot replicas of Aladdin and The Lion King made more money than amazing movies like 1917 and Parasite due to pure audience nostalgia, and that says everything about today’s movie demographics and Disney’s future priorities. However, unlike those other remakes, I had much to look forward to with Mulan as it seemed like a less cartoonish, fantasy-driven take on a tale that wasn’t even so Disney-like to start with. Mulan is a movie that’s definitely on the higher end of the remake spectrum — definitely below The Jungle Book but probably at the same level as Beauty and the Beast. This isn’t a difficult movie to enjoy — the scenery is lively, the acting is solid, and the story is easy to follow especially when you know what it’s going for. So while I appreciate the attempt to make something somewhat different, Disney was unable to step out of the previous film’s shadow without removing the heart that the original had. I don’t care about talking dragons or bursting into song, but even an empowering movie like this somehow felt devoid of emotional connection due to lack of character. It’s very much confusing as to whether it’s trying to still be a charming kid’s movie or a serious war movie. On one hand, you have the childish elements removed, and a PG-13 rating to focus on action scenes, but then you have a witch who can turn into a bird and Mulan basically fighting with… the Force? I’m not one to nitpick about “How could this possibly work in real life?” when I watch a movie, let alone a Disney fantasy film, but she does so many stunts that seem physically implausible and only make sense if you’re some sort of Jedi or one of the heroes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There isn’t even a throwaway line about Mulan maybe having a strong connection to nature or her physical side, she just magically is the greatest acrobat and fighter in the world and we don’t even see her develop these abilities like the rest of the soldiers, which pushes us even farther from our iconic hero.
Liu Yifei does well as the titular character with what she’s given, but I wish the director and writers showed her emotional journey more, as her entire development feels defined only by the “woman defying gender norms” and “Loyal Brave and True” mottos. The rest of the cast feels underutilized especially Donnie Yen, an acclaimed performer who’s already proven himself to film lovers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as well as the Ip Man movies. Instead of seeing an interesting teacher-student relationship between Commander Tung and Mulan, he only serves for one scene of dramatic irony and one trust/distrust contrast moment. Tzi Ma does an excellent job as Mulan’s father, and her mother’s actress is also good, but we don’t see much of them either — same goes for Jet Li who is really great as the Emperor. There’s also a character who befriends Mulan and is the first one to really trust in her but the connection feels oddly one-sided. And the villains are awful, both the cartoonish Bori Khan and the equally pointless and emotionless shapeshifting witch. The visuals are very creative, especially the lovely scenery used for wide shots and battle sequences. The standouts include an amazing shot of a fight scene on a geyser, and the sequences in the Imperial City, that I could even see scoring the film an Oscar nomination for Production Design. The story is entertaining again to follow, especially when you remember the spirit of the story you already know, and when you follow conversations between the young soldiers, as well as the training montage where you can’t help but recall the awesome song that’s originally thee in the animation. The final battle is especially cool, but the film is greatly hurt — this may even be the film’s greatest flaw — by the horrendous editing. The random moments of slo-mo, as well as rushing through sequences in a montage fashion, is especially what hurt important character and scene-building moments, and letting the action play out for longer would’ve strengthened the spectacle. So while I did enjoy Mulan for the most part and had a positive impression of it when it ended (speaking of which, the end credits are gorgeous), something felt missing throughout which is that charm and energy that’s present in most terrific family films. It isn’t fully felt until a touching final scene where the messages unify and become clearer and more impactful to the plot. It’s a fun family watch, an important story about breaking down stereotypes and who “can” and “can’t” fulfill certain duties, but an extra 10-20 minutes of runtime, as well as stronger utilization of the cast and a more consistent emotional pull not just to the empowerment theme but also to the characters and world of the story, would’ve made this a more satisfying and excellent remake like we hoped for.