There’s no greater display of Disney’s market dominance than the runaway success of their Live Action Remakes. Regardless of their quality, the films are all box office behemoths based on the nostalgia for the animated movies they’re based on. That success is being tested with the release of Mulan. Originally intended as a summer tentpole, the global pandemic has inspired The Mouse to conduct a tricky test run, by way of charging $30.00 on Disney+ for fans to see the film at home. This will likely be a success, and may give Disney the option to release future films on their streaming service in lieu of a theatrical release. But there may be one drawback – is Mulan enough of a spectacle to overcome the trappings of the small screen?
Our story finds us in Imperial China, where a young woman named Mulan (Yifei Liu) is being prepared for an arranged marriage. The only problem is, she seems way more interested in adventure than romance. Meanwhile, an impending war has caused the Emperor (Jet Li) to implement a draft, where each family must offer a warrior to enter. Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), doesn’t have a son and thus is forced to nominate himself. Seeing how feeble her father is, Mulan steals his sword, takes the family horse, and disguises herself as a man as she joins the effort.
Many conparisons will be obviously made between the live action film and Disney’s 1998 animated feature. But one key difference will be apparent early, and that is the reasoning behind Mulan’s physical aptitude. In the animated film, Mulan became a warrior basically on the fly, training in her battalion until she was fit enough for battle. However, the remake aims to establish that Mulan’s Chi is what makes her a special warrior. Obviously, Chi is a very real concept in Chinese culture, but the film utilizes it as a super power, not unlike The Force in Star Wars, robbing Mulan of some of what makes her special. Her bravery is still kept intact, but pinning her success down to utilizing Chi, when her comrades do not, makes it seem as if she has an unfair advantage, and is more reliant on that rather than skill and hard work.
We can speculate on why this change was made. One possible explanation is the studio, and screenwriters, may have felt this would avoid any “Mary Sue” accusations. The problem with that is the plot of the film centers around a draft, creating the scenario that many of the men drafted are just as inexperienced in battle as Mulan. It would suffice to show the training Mulan has to go through to become a great fighter, especially if this happened over a large period of time. Making matters worse, we see in the opening scene that Mulan, as a pubescent girl, is far more interested in athletics, adventure, and combat than the interests that are deemed socially acceptable for her. She clearly has the talent for battle, so why rely on the crutch of an unseen superpower?
But that’s not the only change. The new Mulan boasts multiple villains, but the most striking is Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shape-shifting witch who sees through Mulan’s facade. Lang represents the conflict with self that is the theme of the plot, as she was exiled from society for trying to transcend gender norms. Her backstory represents the dark history Mulan must face and overcome. There’s a lot of great parallels to be had here… but Xian Lang is too damn silly and underdeveloped for this story thread to be emotionally impactful. She’s a goofy villain with a vague backstory. We don’t have context for the transgressions she’s faced, taking away some of the film’s thematic punch.
Moreover, Mulan herself is hardly put through the wringer as a protagonist. Due to her apparent superpowers, she glides through battles with relative ease. The movie refuses to allow us to identify with Mulan as an underdog, and the film suffers. Yes, she faces some consequences due to her facade, but they’re relatively short-lived and there’s not much she has to overcome. In the animated movie, Mulan was a badass, but she also had some failures, took some lumps, and was certainly physically mortal. Her yearning to find her proper place was extremely empathetic and admirable, to the point that the music amplified the film’s themes. Here, the music of the animated film is referenced and relied upon, such as an instrumental of the iconic Reflection, but its not earned.
Director Niki Caro is certainly talented enough to capture the film’s many vistas and set pieces. But the film lacks empathy, dramatic tension, and is devoid of humor. Oh there are attempts at humor, but its overpowered by the film’s default setting of dull and robotic. If this was my first experience with everyone in this cast, I would have no idea if any of them could act because the movie never showcases what they can do. This isn’t a film that allows you to show your emotional range; these are essentially action figures repeating the beats of a superior work.
Mulan is an unfortunate facsimile, one that re-enforces the biggest criticisms of its parent studio. It has a gigantic $200 million price tag, yet not much of the budget was spent on getting us to care about the characters in this re-telling. This was a great opportunity to expand upon the Chinese myth aswell as Disney’s original classic. Yet the movie settles into a safe status quo, refusing to evolve beyond some toothless and unnecessary revisions. An emotional story abput the lengths one will go to in order to protect their family; that feels like its right in Disney’s wheelhouse. So, why does Mulan feel like an imposter?