Full disclosure: I am an avid fan of Disney’s 1998 animated classic Mulan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched and rewatched the movie over the course of my life – perhaps a thousand times if not more. My sisters and I memorized every line of dialogue and every lyric to every song, nailing the timing down to perfection on long car rides in the late 90s and throughout the 2000s even up to present day. For us, Disney’s Mulan was our first introduction to the legendary Chinese folktale, just as Disney introduced us to many Western fairy tales from Cinderella to The Little Mermaid.
As I grew older, I researched every aspect of Mulan‘s production. Everything from the character designs courtesy of Lilo & Stitch creator Chris Sanders, to China’s decision to initially banned Disney’s Mulan from its shores after the company distributed a documentary about Tibet with actor Richard Gere, to trivia like how Jackie Chan provided voice-over work for the Mandarin and Cantonese versions of the film. (I even memorized the Mandarin lyrics to many of the film’s musical numbers.) I eventually wrote to Mulan’s voice actress, Ming-Na Wen, who actually wrote back and included an autographed photo of herself.
Suffice it to say, I was obsessed with the film. So I was excited when Disney announced they would be producing a live-action remake of the film. I was also a little nervous, as most of their live-action remakes have disappointed me so far. The only exceptions being Aladdin and The Jungle Book for me.
I became even more concerned when it was announced that none of Mulan’s sidekicks, like Mushu the dragon or Cri-Kee the cricket, would be appearing in the updated version. One reason for removing these characters was that they weren’t in the original Hua Mulan folktale from China. The implication being that their mere inclusion was somehow offensive to the original legend and horribly “Westernized”.
I wholeheartedly reject this notion. For starters, Disney has a long tradition of reimagining classic stories. Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid was not a direct regurgitation of Hans Christian Andersen’s original book. Even more recently, Disney took great liberties with Frozen, a retelling of the classic Snow Queen fairytale. Suddenly, however, China feels like it deserves special treatment wherein no alterations can be made to a classic folktale that originates from its region.
Which is quite the double standard. I am intimately familiar with the Chinese film industry. China has produced many TV and film reiterations of Mulan’s story over the years, and each iteration always changes depending on the audience. They’ve reimagined dozens of other Chinese folktales as well (how many White Snake or Journey to the West adaptations are out there?). The idea that Mushu or Cri-Kee were somehow unacceptable or disrespectful to the source material was laughable from the start.
But fine, if that’s the direction they wanted to go with it – if they wanted it to be less cartoony, I would respect their vision and keep an open mind.
Then it was announced there would be no musical numbers in the live-action Mulan. That’s a red flag, those showstopping tunes were some of the most memorable parts of the animated adaptation, but okay. Open mind. Gotta keep an open mind. Apparently the sidekicks and songs were deemed too childish for the supposedly realistic tone the new film was aiming towards. Not to mention somehow offensive as we previously established.
Now, you can probably already sense that my expectations were low for 2020 Mulan. And you may even allege that I was destined to dislike the film from the start with my low expectations. But on the contrary, in my experience usually if I go into a film with low expectations, I end up liking it more than if I had went in with high expectations. If my expectations are low, they are easier to be met.
Yet still, Disney’s live-action Mulan has failed to reach the ridiculously low bar I set for it. And I’ll tell you why, but first let me get some positives out of the way before you think I’m just incapable of finding any redeemable qualities in it.
I must praise the latest Mulan film for doing a decent job of portraying the relationship between the titular heroine and her father. Especially in the early moments of the film, the emotional bond they share is well-realized. Tzi Ma brings a wholesome Winnie-the-Pooh like quality to the character of Mulan’s father.
Moreover, some of the commentary on gender issues and expectations for the two sexes is well-handled. I appreciated that the film shows how gender stereotypes can end up having a negative impact on both sexes, albeit in different ways. Undoubtedly, many people will find some of the themes of feeling like an outsider or the feeling of being judge for immutable characteristics very relatable (Myself included, who hasn’t felt that way at one point or another?)
And, to its credit, some of the animated original’s classic scenes are well-preserved (not many of them though). One of the few moments that pays tribute to the 1998 cartoon is the bathing scene at the lake. It never captures the humor or personality of 1998’s Mulan, but the tension of being caught or having Mulan‘s secret revealed still manages make my heart race.
Additionally, the fight choreography isn’t too shabby.
Unfortunately, other than a few fleeting moments, the vast majority of scenes pale in comparison to the animated version. The matchmaking scene feels soulless and oversimplified (and doesn’t even make that much sense). The iconic moment Mulan decides to run away from home and join the army loses its power through clumsy execution. Training scenes she undergoes lack the punch of the original.
Honestly, the absence of songs seems to play a huge factor in many of these scenes losing the pizzazz they once had.
And even classic scenes not involving Mulan herself and not attached to any of the songs, like the infamous “Now all of China knows you are here” scene on the Great Wall are either missing or painfully botched.
The film simply takes itself too seriously. And yet, although we were told Mushu and Cri-Kee didn’t fit the tone they were aiming for, somehow the tone actually seems more cheesy and cartoony, despite also being more serious.
Some creativity clearly went into the development of the shapeshifting witch Xian Long you’ve probably seen in trailers, who can transform from a falcon to a witch in a heartbeat. And then there’s the Phoenix which has been displayed in marketing material. It always arrives whenever some on-the-nose symbolism is called for. Neither of these characters appear anywhere in the original Chinese folktale that the animated Mulan supposedly desecrated by having the audacity of including a dragon.
And again, the bulk of their screen time feels cheesy and unnatural. It feels like an awkward movie supervised by Chinese censors with a Hollywood budget and production values. Probably because it is an awkward movie supervised by Chinese censors with a Hollywood budget and production values.
Another huge hit to the realism the film was allegedly striving for is that I never once believed that anyone in the army wouldn’t have realized Mulan was a woman right away. Somehow the cartoon managed to successfully get me to suspend my disbelief long enough to buy into the concept, but maybe there’s something about looking at a real woman in the flesh – especially one who exemplifies such a strong feminine presence as Liu Yifei – that shatters the illusion more than a cartoon ever could.
It would only take two seconds for any normal person looking at her, even in her soldier’s uniform, to say “Heeeeey…. wait a minute.” So there’s a lot of unintentional comedy in watching every other solider and general in the room act like everything’s normal and like she’s just “one of the guys” whenever they share a scene together. The make-up department dropped the ball on this one big time.
Her transformation needed to be more noticeable in order to be reasonably passed off as believable. At least believable enough that she could have went by undetected by other people in that time period and in that setting. If you can’t establish that basic requirement, the story loses any of that realistic touch they claimed to be striving towards and falls apart. I’m judging this based on the goals the filmmakers themselves claimed to be trying to achieve.
So what are we left with? A remake that tries too hard and takes itself too seriously. A remake that removes any of the comic relief and personality from the original (remember, this is still Disney’s Mulan, it is reasonable to expect it to pay a little more tribute to Disney’s original animated feature that it is obviously trying to capitalize on the success and memory of). A remake that ends up feeling more like a cartoon than the actual cartoon, while simultaneously abandoning the spirit of the cartoon in a failed attempt at realism accompanied a darker tone.
What am I supposed to do? Pretend that I enjoyed it? I absolutely didn’t. It was a frustrating experience I wish to never undergo again. The fact that the movie theater I saw it in displayed a whiteboard outside where the staff had drawn the 1998 Mulan characters just reenforced my disappointment with how much Disney missed the mark on this one.
And if you’re going to be asked to shell out thirty bucks on Disney Plus to stream this crap, I have to strongly implore you not to. Don’t reward them for this. Dishonor! Dishonor on Disney! Dishonor on Disney’s cash cow!