Mulan Review

Over the last few years, Disney has committed to adding live-action adaptations of beloved animated classics to their catalog of films, with new versions of Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast all hitting theaters since 2017. The nostalgia train keeps running strong in 2020, as Disney returns to the adaptation well with Mulan.





Mulan's journey to screens has been a unique one, at least in comparison to the other revamped Disney properties. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film's release date was pushed back twice before finally becoming available to rent through Disney Plus. On top of this, the release was met with calls to boycott the film due to star Yifei Liu's support of the Hong Kong police force as tension grows between pro-democratic protestors and government officials. Quite frankly, it hasn't been an easy road for Mulan to traverse.


Perhaps this is why Disney made the call to release the film now instead of waiting for audiences to return to theaters. Like so many films in 2020, Disney pivoted from a traditional theatrical release in favor of a video-on-demand approach. Disney execs surely see this as a blow to a movie predicted to be one of the largest box office draws of the year. With plans of making Mulan available in December for all Disney Plus users, a theatrical release looks less likely with each passing day.


In the end, it's probably for the best.


Much like Disney's other live-action adaptations, Mulan presents a highly stylized and beautiful looking movie. From costume design to action, it is a film visually worthy of a big-screen viewing experience even if audiences have to settle for watching it at home. Unfortunately, Mulan doesn't have enough substance to match the style, leaving me wondering if it does enough to warrant more than a single viewing.


Mulan generally follows the same plot as it's animated counterpart. In imperial China, Hua Mulan struggles to balance her adventurous side with her parent's wishes of her one day becoming a good wife. In the eyes of her village and parents, Mulan is a disappointment, a fact that weighs heavily on her.





Meanwhile, Bori Khan, with the assistance of the witch Xianniang, systematically invades Northern Chinese villages in his quest for revenge against the Emperor for murdering his father. In response, the Emperor decrees each family to contribute one male for his armies to combat Bori Khan.


With only two daughters, Mulan's father volunteer as his family's representative. He is a renowned war hero, but his injured leg leaves him unable to walk without a cane and brace. Believing her father will die if he goes off to war, Mulan steals his prized sword and armor to take his place. Under the veil of night, she leaves her village under a new identity, posing as a man.


From here, the film should look very similar to anyone familiar with the plot of the original. The meat of the film feature Mulan training with her fellow soldiers while wrestling with the consequences of maintaining her secret identity. Her strong connection to her qi, a surprising difference from the original, makes her a formidable warrior. By the end of the film, Mulan, under her real identity, is thrust into the hero role to save China and the Emperor from Bori Khan's evil plan.





Mulan generally follows the same story beats of the original, though some slight differences differentiate the two films. Some of these changes are less noticeable than others. Mushu's absence isn't felt throughout, though his presence may have provided much-needed levity missing from the film. Others, though, impact the overall viewing experience.


Noticeably gone are the musical numbers that audiences loved in the animated film. A keen ear can pick up instrumental versions of the most beloved songs as background music in various scenes, but they are no substitute for the original. The songs played an important role in illustrating Mulan's internal struggle with accepting who she truly is. Leaving out the musical aspect of the film for a mature tone results in Mulan becoming a one-note character.


Mulan's lacking dynamism is only highlighted further by the inclusion of qi to her backstory. In Chinese culture, qi is the energy that flows in and around us, bringing balance to health and life. In Mulan, qi is treated as the equivalent of the mutant x-gene, giving Mulan superhuman abilities that allow her to be a staff-wielding, butt-kicking machine without any real training.





I really struggle to see the value of adding this element to Mulan's backstory. Even if you can look past the issues with appropriating an aspect of Chinese culture for story's sake, the addition of a magical force that grants the character superpowers contradict the thematic elements the Mulan is speaking too. The original film challenged gender norms in a meaningful way, allowing Mulan to demonstrate the value women bring to society outside of just being wives. There was a compelling struggle, both externally and internally, that is missing from the live-action remake. All she has to do is activate her super abilities if she finds herself in a sticky situation. Worst of all, this version makes it very clear that women can be more than wives, but only if they have abilities derived from a mystical force.


Of course, these are all symptoms of a larger problem, the script. Penned by Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek before Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver stepped in for rewrites, the script is where Mulan falters.


I will give the writing team a little credit. It's a near-impossible task to adapt a script from a beloved film and not receive some push back from fans. And I appreciate them trying to deviate from the original by leaving the musical elements out and fine-tuning the tone to be a tad more serious. Unfortunately, these changes only hurt the end product.


The script just doesn't provide the depth of character to make a compelling viewing experience. The cast all put on fine performances but imagine how much better they would have been with more meat to chew on from scene to scene. Likewise, the action is awe-inspiring, with some of the most elegantly choreographed action sequences Disney has ever bolstered. But grandiose action sequences can only carry the film for so long if character development is lacking.





In a lot of ways, it feels like the writing team wanted to create something new while hoping the nostalgia of the original would contribute enough towards character development to satisfy audiences.


It doesn't.


Subsequently, the film falls flat, leaving audiences with little reason to revisit this beautiful world.






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