I don’t know what I expected from the new live-action take on Mulan? In general, I haven’t been a big fan of these Disney live-action remakes, but occasionally they have a success such as Mary Poppins Returns or Pete’s Dragon(if you ask me at least). With it based on a true story with war-legend origins, Mulan seems like something that could convert well to live action’s more realistic storytelling. Well, now I’ve seen the film (after delays and a $30 Disney Plus price tag!). It’s on one-hand a harmless film and not offensively awful, but it does not live up to its potential and makes a lot of thoroughly weird decisions.
Let’s start with the positives. First off, the film looks beautiful. You can definitely see where they spent the money in the sweeping cinematography, detailed costumes, and ornate production design. It also is more respectful of Chinese culture whereas the 1998 animated film wasn’t always the best (the ancestors? Need I say more…). I appreciate the insistence by Disney of getting an all-Chinese cast and female director Niki Caro.
Unfortunately that is where my praise stops and my problems begin. It’s extremely frustrating because they had so many great pieces to work with but made such baffling choices. In the original film, Mulan is an ordinary girl that is forced out of love for her father to play the part of the warrior. This is empowering. When she cuts off her hair and assumes her father’s armor, she is sacrificing her life for those she loves. Then as she trains and conquers the pole with the weights, she becomes strong and powerful.
In this live-action film, they endow Mulan with the power of chi that makes her special and the chosen one who is called to save China. She is so powerful that a witch named Xianniang (Gong Li) follows her in human and other forms. Instead of cutting her hair to symbolize her sacrifice, we get a fighting montage where her long hair spills out all over her face mid-battle. I understand this is done to pay homage to the wuxia style of martial arts films, but it ends up feeling like spectacle over character. How can they not see that this is not as good as the scrappy girl who figures it all out on her own (with some encouragement from a cricket and a lizard)?
A little mysticism would be fine if they created a compelling character to use those powers. I am a huge defender of Wonder Woman, for example, which has a similar chosen one narrative. Unfortunately, the Mulan here is pretty bland. She doesn’t even change her voice or show any humility when pretending to be a soldier. It’s like she wants to be discovered when in reality that would be the last thing she’d want. Actress Liu Yifei didn’t help much playing Mulan without any charisma or personality (like Gal Gadot has in spades). Her performance may be hurt by a language barrier, but either way it was wooden and flat.
Mulan as a character was also kept at a distance from us in the screenplay. In the original film, we are given key moments where we understand her voice and what she wants out of life. This is obviously found the most in the song “Reflection,” which they did not include in this film. This change is understandable, even commendable (we saw where singing got us in the live action Beauty and the Beast), but if the song isn’t going to be used, the moment of introspection contained in the musical number needs to be replaced, and it wasn’t. We are left instead with a chosen person who is endowed with power, saves all of China, and is vindicated to her hometown and family. That’s not very interesting, however handsomely it might be mounted.
Aside from Yifei, the screenplay doesn’t give the talented supporting cast much to do. They all feel cold and emotionless, searching for a screenplay that offers character growth and a meaningful story that isn’t going through the motions. It was nice to see Jason Scott Lee back at Disney after his turn in the 1994 live-action update of The Jungle Book, and he’s good but again not given much to do in the script.
A lot of people were very tough on the recent Frozen II, but in my opinion at least, they faced obstacles and had to make tough choices. The script might have been messy, but I’d rather see that than a flawless heroine saving the day. To each his or her own, I suppose. A lot of people will probably enjoy this Mulan, and I’m glad when they do. It’s certainly not the worst of the live-action remakes (i.e., Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King, or Maleficent), but it could have been great. Instead, it’s very meh, and I don’t think anyone will remember it in two years, let alone 22 like the original animated film. It’s certainly not worth your $30 if you’re asking me.
Rachel is a rottentomatoes approved film critic that has loved animation since she was a little girl belting out songs from 'The Little Mermaid'. She reviews as many films as she can each year and loves interviewing actors, directors, and anyone with an interesting story to tell. Rachel is the founder of the popular Hallmarkies Podcast, and the Rachel's Reviews podcast/youtube channel, which covers all things animated including a monthly Talking Disney and Obscure Animation show.